A Primer On Kierkegaardian Motifs
This section is intended as a brief overview of Kierkegaardian thought and a starting point for readers who have had limited exposure to Kierkegaard. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is arguably both the father of existentialism and of modern psychology. He wrote voluminously during his short lifetime, publishing a variety of philosophical and theological works, including shorter discourses and newspaper articles. He also left thousands of pages of his Journals. His writing was so prolific that it was not uncommon for him to publish several works in one year, with two or three appearing in very close proximity. Altogether, his literary output is enormous for a man who died at the age of 42.
Dialectic can mean several things. First, it is a method of asking questions, which includes refutation and elaboration. Socrates is perhaps the most noteworthy dialectician of this sort. His dialectic was based on ignorance (feigned or real), which was designed to orient the interlocutors to their own ignorance. Second, dialectic can mean inquiry into a philosophical matter. This is more the ancient view whereby things are understood according to their classification into categories. Third, dialectic can be the entire expression of a subject. Plato, for instance, wrote dialogues almost exclusively instead of treatises, and thus in them never spoke to us directly. Therefore we cannot woodenly assign Socrates the role of Plato's mouthpiece. Plato's dialectic is thus his means of expression. Kierkegaardian dialectic consisted of writing under pseudonyms, with each name writing from a certain viewpoint. Like Plato, Kierkegaard does not speak to us directly in most of his philosophical works. For more on this see Kierkegaard's Authorial Method.
Although I have called Kierkegaard the "father of existentialism" above, the roots of existentialism are generally traced as far back as St. Augustine (354-430). Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is recognized as a more modern precursor.
St. Augustine, especially in his Confessions exhibited a great concern for himself in the face of God. The work abounds in a dynamic and healthy self-interest which humbly lays itself before, and submits to, the will of God. Augustine sifts through his life before his conversion and analyzes it, all the while carrying on a conversation with God in the present. His grief over the time he stole from someone's orchard is vivid and personal. The Confessions is still read today as a frank and vital existential work.
Pascal countered the rationalist Descartes (1596-1650) by emphasizing the Scriptures and the primacy of God.
Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. [The heart has its reasons which reason is not acquainted with.]
Pascal also described God as the "hidden God" (Deus absconditus). On man and the universe he said,
L'homme n'est qu'un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c'est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l'univers entier s'arme pour l'ecraser: une vapeur, une goutte d'eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais, quand l'univers l'ecraserait, l'homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu'il sait qu'il meurt, et l'avantage que l'univers a sur lui; l'univers n'en sait rien. [Man is but a reed, the most frail thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A mist or drop of water is sufficient to kill him. But should the universe crush him, man would still be more noble than what kills him, because he knows that he dies; but the universe knows nothing of the advantage it has over him.]
Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie. [The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.]
The concern that the individual is to have over himself before his God may have seemed to be egoistic to some. However, these thinkers believed that God calls each man to examine his own life individually, as one who is responsible to share in his own salvation.
A definition of existentialism
Existentialism is as much a way of life as it is a philosophy. In the existentialism proffered by atheistic philosophers it is a life-view where the individual, in a universe without God, and thus without revealed morality, must create his own system of ethics. It is a life-view where the individual is ultimately responsible for his actions. With man at the center of all things, it is up to each individual to create an essence out of the facthood of his own existence. This does not necessarily lead to a nihilistic schema void of ethics—though it certainly can—but rather an ethical system in which man builds meaning out of meaninglessness, and thus brings order out of chaos.
The theistic existentialist also emphasizes the individual and personal responsibility—but the individual before God. The existence of a moral system given to us by God in no way limits our responsibility and necessity to live our own lives with intelligence and volition. Theistic existentialism recognizes the chaotic and ferocity in man, and presents it to God for forgiveness, healing, and strength. This is not an abdication of responsibility. In fact, God requires that we make choices, and he honors them.
Aspects of existentialism
Peter Angeles lists several general features of existentialism.
1) EXISTENCE precedes ESSENCE. Forms do not determine existence to be what it is. Existence fortuitously becomes and is whatever it becomes and is, and that existence then makes up its "essence". 2) An individual has no essential nature, no self-identity other than that involved in the act of choosing. 3) Truth is subjectivity. 4) Abstractions can never grasp nor communicate the reality of individual existence. 5) Philosophy must concern itself with the human predicament and inner states such as alienation, anxiety, inauthenticity, dread, sense of nothingness, anticipation of death. 6) The universe has no rational direction or scheme. It is meaningless and absurd. 7) The universe does not provide moral rules. Moral principles are constructed by humans in the context of being responsible for their actions and for the actions of others. 8) Individual actions are unpredictable. 9) Individuals have complete freedom of the will. 10) Individuals cannot help but make choices. 11) An individual can become completely other than what he is (Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 88).
It should be apparent to many readers that these definitions do not all apply to Kierkegaardian existentialism, but have been included for the sake of completeness. In fact, Kierkegaard rarely used the word existential and its cognates, and not usually in the modern sense of the terms. Of the characteristics above number 1 (in part), 3, 4, 5, 9 (in part) and 10 more directly apply to Kierkegaardian dialectic.
Many of Kierkegaard's philosophical and theological works, excepting some devotional discourses and a few polemical, anti-ecclesiastical tracts, were written pseudonymously. Each pseudonym functions from a different philosophical platform. These "authors" remain constant throughout the Kierkegaardian corpus; a particular pseudonym may write several works, all from a consistent and defensible position. For more information, see Kierkegaard's Authorial Method.
A Response to Hegelianism
Kierkegaard's main concerns included dismantling the philosophical "System", by which he meant that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel sought to devise a philosophical system that would encompass all thought. To Kierkegaard, it was arrogant to develop a philosophy from a detached standpoint, as if a philosopher stood outside of the system that he created. He was not concerned with a system, but with man in the world, especially as an individual before God. Hegel posited the famous triad: a thesis yields an antithesis, which then yields, along with the thesis, a synthesis or unity, which in turn becomes a new thesis. Kierkegaard asserted that this jeopardized belief in propositional truth, specifically the law of contradiction. Moreover, since every new thesis reinitiates the triadic process, ultimate truth is never reached. Knowledge is always in a state of evolution. Finally, a system that encompasses everything is self-negating, and collapses on itself. Kierkegaard deprecatingly spoke of Hegelians as "Assistant Professors".
Kierkegaard posited three stages of life, or spheres of existence: the esthetic, the ethical, and the religious. While he favored the term "stages" earlier in his writings, we are not to conceive of them necessarily as periods of life that one proceeds through in sequence, but rather as paradigms of existence. Moreover, many individuals might not traverse a certain stage, for example, the religious. The esthetic sphere is primarily that of self-gratification. The esthete enjoys art, literature, and music. Even the Bible can be appreciated esthetically and Christ portrayed as a tragic hero. The ethical sphere of existence applies to those who sense the claims of duty to God, country, or mankind in general. The religious sphere is divided into Religiousness A and B. Religiousness A apples to the individual who feels a sense of guilt before God. It is a religiousness of immanence. Religiousness B is transcendental in nature. It may be summed up by St. Paul's phrase: "In Christ". It consists of a radical conversion to Christ in the qualitative leap of faith. Kierkegaard also mentions intermediate stages, each of which he calls a confinium, or boundary. Irony lies between the esthetic and the ethical, and humor lies between the ethical and the religious.
There are three existence spheres: the esthetic, the ethical, the religious. The metaphysical is abstraction, and there is no human who exists metaphysically. The metaphysical, the ontological, is, but it does not exist, for when it exists it does so in the esthetic, in the ethical, in the religious, and when it is, it is the abstraction from a prius [prior thing] to the esthetic, the ethical, the religious. The ethical sphere is only a transition sphere, and therefore its highest expression is repentance as a negative action. The esthetic sphere is the sphere of immediacy, the ethical the sphere of requirement (and this requirement is so infinite that the individual always goes bankrupt), the religious the sphere of fulfillment, but, please note, not a fulfillment such as when one fills an alms box or a sack of gold, for repentance has specifically created a boundless space, and as a consequence the religious contradiction: simultaneously to be out on 70,000 fathoms of water and yet be joyful. Just as the ethical sphere is a passageway—which one nevertheless does not pass through once and for all—just as repentance is its expression, so repentance is the most dialectical (Stages On Life's Way, p. 476f.).
D. F. Swenson, as quoted by W. Lowrie, defines Religiousness A and B.
Religion A is characterized by a passive relation to the divine, with the accompanying suffering and sense of guilt. But it is distinguished from religion B, or transcendent religion, in that the tie which binds the individual to the divine is still, in spite of all tension, essentially intact.... The distinctive feature of transcendent religion can be briefly stated. It consists in a transformation or modification of the sense of guilt into the sense of sin, in which all continuity is broken off between the actual self and the ideal self, the temporal self and the eternal. The personality is invalidated, and thus made free from the law of God, because unable to comply with its demands. There is no fundamental point of contact left between the individual and the divine; man has become absolutely different from God (A Short Life of Kierkegaard, p. 173f.).
Kierkegaard emphasized the individual over the "numeric masses". He maintained that God has no relation to mankind as a whole. The individual is more important than the Universal (the law, morality). When Abraham was commanded by God to kill his son Isaac, the Absolute (God) was contravening the Universal. Kierkegaard did not prescribe lawlessness, much less anarchy—which is rule by the numeric masses. Rather, each individual must come into a relationship with the Absolute (the religious stage) whereby the ethical stage can be properly established. Kierkegaard's overwhelming individuality brought him into opposition with the state Lutheran Church of Denmark (see below).
There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there is also the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd—a crowd to which any decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd—untruth would at once be in evidence (The Single Individual, p. 110).
It is this facet of Kierkegaard's thinking that is perhaps most generally misunderstood. Kierkegaard emphasized subjective truth over objective truth, or "the truth that is true for me". By this, he did not necessarily deny objective, propositional truth, but rather, he asserted that truth, especially the claims of religion, must be appropriated subjectively to have any effect on, or value for, the thinker. If we choose to relate to God objectively, he can mean nothing to us, because we will not be related to him anymore than if we deny his existence. Subjective truth is inwardness.
Kierkegaard posits the sundering of thinking and being. If we could approach a thing, he says, and know it as it is in itself, then thinking would be identified with being, that is, our conception would conform exactly to the actual thing that we have conceived. This, he says, is an impossibility. When we say that our thought conforms to the thing that we are conceiving, yet at the same time remain unaware of the mediation that would be required to know the object—a mediation that does not come into being—or, to put it another way, when we identify thinking with being—we then deceive ourselves. The "dialectical middle terms", if any, are simply ignored in such a fallacious cognitive construction. An example may suffice.
Suppose that there are two individuals, one of whom is an atheist, and the other a deist. Viewed ontologically, they have diametrically opposed belief systems. One says definitively that there is no God, and the other says there is. But viewed existentially they both believe the same thing. Neither can turn to a God in prayer. The former has no God to turn to, and the latter has a God who does not interact with man. Similarly, imagine two individuals, one of whom says that there is no objective truth, and the other who says that there is (or may be) objective truth, but notwithstanding this truth nothing can be known objectively. Though they have opposite belief systems, neither can know objective truth objectively.
Kierkegaard sometimes suggested that there was no objective truth because he believed that nothing can be known objectively. But he was fluid on this matter. His statement that "truth is subjectivity" does not mean that truth conforms to one's imaginings; it means that all truth must be appropriated subjectively. This is due both to our nature and to the very order of things. Again, subjectivism has regard to the appropriation of truth, not to its content.
Kierkegaard further argued that since an object of knowledge is not complete in itself by virtue of not having yet passed through the phase of ceasing-to-be—and thus is still in the process of becoming—and that we who observe the object are also in the process of becoming, we cannot acquire accurate knowledge of the thing. What would be the mediating factors to accomplish this task? Kierkegaard concludes that when we claim to have knowledge of a thing, we do so solely through an act of faith. This is why he had no tolerance for apologetics, which seeks to objectify that which cannot be objectively believed.
In order to clarify the divergence of objective and subjective reflection, I shall now describe subjective reflection in its search back and inward into inwardness. At its highest, inwardness in an existing subject is passion; truth as a paradox corresponds to passion, and that truth becomes a paradox is grounded precisely in its relation to an existing subject. In this way the one corresponds to the other. In forgetting that one is an existing subject, one loses passion...[and] the knowing subject shifts from being human to being a fantastical something.... When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he relates himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual's relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 198f.).
For more on subjectivity see Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
Sin, Anxiety, Despair
There are five main points about Kierkegaardian anxiety: First, anxiety preceded Adam's sin. Anxiety is not itself sin, but is the natural reaction of the soul when faced with the yawning abyss of freedom. The awful predicament of freedom, before and apart from sin, yields anxiety. Second, though freedom itself causes anxiety, this anxiety, once again, does not necessarily lead to sin, nor indeed is it itself sin. Thus Kierkegaard emphasized that man was free not to sin as well as to sin. The fall was not necessitated by creation, by mere existence. Third, Kierkegaard grounded each individual's sin in his own sinfulness. Just as Adam sinned which brought about sinfulness in him, so does each individual sin while in a state of freedom and sinlessness, and only then is sinfulness posited. Fourth, sin itself brings about anxiety, a compounding of the anxiety of freedom. This anxiety can lead the sinner back to the One who made him and gave him freedom, and thus anxiety can be saving through faith. Fifth, the first sin for Adam and for the individual is a qualitative leap. It is a leap out of freedom into sinfulness. It is not necessitated by existence (much less freedom) and so can only be explained by a leap. So too is the soul's return to the One who created it—a leap back to God through faith (see below for more on the leap). His concern is that all individual persons are born with the same freedom and anxiety as a result of that freedom that Adam possessed, and thus we sin not because we are sinners, but we become sinners because of our qualitative leap out of freedom into sin, and hence sinfulness. It is then that the expression of anxiety is sin.
When sin is posited in the particular individual by the qualitative leap, the difference between good and evil is also posited. We have nowhere been guilty of the foolishness that holds that man must sin; on the contrary, we have always protested against all merely imaginatively constructed knowledge. We have said what we again repeat, that sin presupposes itself, just as freedom presupposes itself, and sin cannot be explained by anything antecedent to it, anymore than can freedom. To maintain that freedom begins as liberum arbitrium [free will]...that can choose good just as well as evil inevitably makes every explanation impossible. To speak of good and evil as the objects of freedom finitizes both freedom and the concepts of good and evil. Freedom is infinite and arises out of nothing. Therefore, to want to say that man sins by necessity makes the circle of the leap into a straight line (The Concept of Anxiety, p. 112).
Despair is anxiety in the face of the eternal. Kierkegaard addresses two broad types of despair: First, "the despair that is ignorant of being despair, or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self". Second, "the despair that is conscious of being despair and therefore is conscious of having a self in which there is something eternal". This second type is again divided into two types: First, the soul does "not will to be itself", or second, the soul "in despair wills to be itself".
An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to get rid of himself. For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is "Either Caesar or nothing" does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it. But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar.... Consequently, to despair over something is still not despair proper.... To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself—this is the formula for all despair (The Sickness Unto Death, p. 19f.).
Faith, The Paradoxical (The Absurd), Offense
Kierkegaard's main concern was with knowledge of God through faith. Faith is the individual's reaction to the inherent paradox of Christianity. Since essential truth is far beyond our comprehension to the extent that we cannot approach it objectively, it appears to us in the form of a paradox. A paradox is a tension of sorts between at least two focal points. In terms of religious paradox, we may refer to the Christian doctrine of Jesus as fully divine and fully human. No one can comprehend how such a thing could be. However, it is not a flat contradiction. A logical contradiction posits two mutually exclusive premises, such as "James is a man and is not a man", where the term "man" means the same thing on both sides of the statement. This point is frequently misunderstood. Kierkegaard would not have us believe, or come into relation with, the impossible or the contradictory. Furthermore, any attempt to remove the paradoxical is either an attempt to objectify what we cannot know objectively, because we are in the process of becoming, or, to dismiss the role of faith as silliness. This, again, would imply that we can understand something to such a degree that we could dismiss it absolutely, as if we dwelled outside of the system (or the universe)—as if from an objective standpoint.
Just as the concept "faith" is an altogether distinctively Christian term, so in turn is "offense" an altogether distinctively Christian term relating to faith. The possibility of offense is the crossroad, or it is like standing at the crossroad. From the possibility of offense, one turns either to offense or to faith, but one never comes to faith except from the possibility of offense.... Offense...relates to the God-man and has two forms. It is either in relation to the loftiness that one is offended, that an individual human being claims to be God, acts or speaks in a manner that manifests God...or the offense is in relation to lowliness, that the one who is God is this lowly human being, suffering as a lowly human being.... The God-man is the paradox, absolutely the paradox. Therefore, it is altogether certain that the understanding must come to a standstill on it (Practice In Christianity, p. 81f.).
To us, who are in the process of becoming, some truths are perceived as impenetrable paradoxes. Thinking and being are too remote from each other for us to see them as anything else. The paradoxical incites offense in the non-believer. This offense is a necessary reaction to Christianity.
On the function of the intellect and faith, Kierkegaard said,
That is, when faith requires that he relinquish his understanding, then to have faith becomes just as difficult for the most intelligent person as it is for the person of the most limited intelligence, or it presumably becomes even more difficult for the former (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 377).
What then does the Gospel do? The Gospel, which is the wisdom of child-training, does not enter into strife with man about thoughts and words, in order to prove to him that this is so; the Gospel knows full well that it is not thus the thing is accomplished, that it is not as though a man first understands that it is so as it is said to be, and thereupon resolves unconditionally to obey, but conversely, that by obeying unconditionally a man first comes to understand that it is so as the Gospel says (The Lily of the Field, the Bird of the Air, p. 345f.).
No glance is so sharp-sighted as that of faith, and yet, humanly speaking, faith is blind; for reason, understanding, is, humanly speaking, the faculty of seeing, but faith is against the understanding (Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays, p. 374f.).
It should be obvious that Kierkegaard was not anti-intellectual, but was against many of the effects of intellectualism. Hegel's system sought to explain (that is, digest, consume) everything. Kierkegaard thought that such thinking was arrogant in the extreme—and also logically impossible. Man cannot devise such a system because man is finite and must live within the universe he explains.
In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard gives a succinct definition of faith in relation to the absurd.
Faith is the objective uncertainty with the repulsion of the absurd, held fast in the passion of inwardness, which is the relation of inwardness intensified to its highest.... Faith must not be satisfied with incomprehensibility, because the very relation to or repulsion from the incomprehensible, the absurd, is the expression for the passion of faith.
The Leap and The Qualitative Leap of Faith
Kierkegaard seems to have acquired the idea of the leap from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), who in ways was groping toward some of Kierkegaard's conclusions. He was a noted German esthetician, dramatist, and critic. His drama abandoned neo-classical forms and assumed more personal and ideal themes. The Kierkegaardian leap assumes two main forms: First there is the leap from sinlessness into sin, which Kierkegaard describes in The Concept of Anxiety, (see Sin above). Second, there is the qualitative leap of faith. This is not a blind leap as is often thought. Kierkegaard's concern was that faith is never easy or probable. Faith in God is an agonistic and often fearful struggle to cast one's entire person into relation to God.
1. The subjective existing thinker is aware of the dialectic of communication. Whereas objective thinking is indifferent to the thinking subject and his existence, the subjective thinker as existing is essentially interested in his own thinking, is existing in it. Therefore, his thinking has another kind of reflection, specifically, that of inwardness, of possession, whereby it belongs to the subject and to no one else.... 2. In his existence-relation to the truth, the existing subjective thinker is just as negative as positive, has just as much of the comic as he essentially has of pathos, and is continually in a process of becoming, that is, striving.... In the domain of thinking, the positive can be classed in the following categories: sensate certainty, historical knowledge, speculative result. But this positive is precisely the untrue. Sensate certainty is a delusion (see Greek skepticism...); historical knowledge is an illusion (since it is approximation-knowledge); and the speculative result is a phantom. That is, all of this positive fails to express the state of the knowing subject in existence.... 3.... Lessing has said that contingent historical truths can never become a demonstration of eternal truths of reason, also that the transition whereby one will build an eternal truth on historical reports is a leap.... 4. Lessing has said If God held all truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me: Choose!—I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give! Pure truth is indeed only for you alone! (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 72f., 80f., 93, 106).
There is no gradual accumulation of sensory data or rational proofs for God's existence or for the resurrection of Christ, etc. One performs a willed act of faith despite fear, doubt, and sin. The leap is not out of thoughtlessness, but out of volition. The leap is sheer and unmediated, and is not made by quantitative movements, stages, or changes. When Satan sinned against God, there were no outside forces acting on him. Moreover, he had no inner drive that was corrupt. His fall was a great leap from sinlessness into sin. Conversely, the leap of faith has no gradations or movements (the quantitative). It cannot be mediated by proofs or reason. It is a sheer leap from doubt, or more specifically, from the doubt that exists by virtue of the paradoxical (the absurd), or in reaction to the offense of Christ, by faith to God.
The Attack On Christendom
The church in Denmark was (and is) Lutheran. It was a State Church in which all Danes were born Lutheran and thus de facto "Christians". Citizenship and enrollment in the Church were the same thing. Kierkegaard alleged that this reduced to nothing radical conversion to Christ. The Church sought to transform the sacred economy of God into a profane state religion. Kierkegaard felt that "Official Christianity", or Christendom, had departed so far from the Christianity of the New Testament that it needed to be torn down and rebuilt—not reformed. It must again be underscored that Kierkegaard did not attack the Christianity of the New Testament, but "Official Christianity" or "Christendom". The attack consisted of a series of articles published during the final year of his life. His attack was unusual, since he attacked the Church from within, as a believer. He died in the midst of this heated battle. For more on this see Articles From The Fatherland.