Kierkegaard had nothing but sneers for academic philosophers. In fact, much more often than not, he refers to himself as a poet in the broad German Romantic sense of the term and very rarely as a philosopher. However, ironically enough, if you want to study Kierkegaard, the master of irony, your best bet is to go the philosophy department and look for Kierkegaard in a course on existentialism. While I am not one for keeping intellectual box scores on such issues, Kierkegaard is almost universally regarded as the progenitor of the philosophical movement that is existentialism.
The existentialists are a motley crew, so motley that there is little consensus amongst scholars as to who should be included on the roster. Nevertheless, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard is a consensus pick. The existentialists are united by common themes rather than common views. A short list of these themes might consist of choice, freedom, the individual, the absurd, authenticity, the limits of reason, the meaning of life, etc. As a group, they also pay closer attention than their cooler-headed philosophical colleagues to moods, such as anxiety and depression, or as I prefer to parse it, to the obstacles that we are up against in ourselves. Kierkegaard struck all of these chords in his massive oeuvre, but more than that he adopted an inside out, first-person perspective that was anathema to the Socrates guild both then and now. It was from this personal vantage point that meaning of life questions bubbled up, questions that are the earmark of existential reflection.
Born in 1813 in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard wrote his classic works pseudonymously. For decades, there has existed an academic cottage industry of researchers attempting to interpret Kierkegaard’s use of noms de plume. One of the most compelling explanations has it that the various pseudonyms represent different life perspectives. For a sampler, Vigilius Haufniensis, the author of the Concept of Anxiety, embodies the purely psychological perspective. The dogmatist Anti-Climacus, who gave us the lapidary Sickness unto Death, represents a rigorous religious perspective. Johannes Climacus is Kierkegaard’s philosophical personae and the author of both the The Philosophical Fragments and The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments.
In the Postscript, which was published in 1846 and is about four times longer than the Fragments, it is easy to detect the fingerprints of the inside out, existential perspective. First, Kierkegaard, aka Johannes Climacus, confesses that while everyone else is writing to make life easier, he will wield his quill to make life harder for his readers. Climacus begins with notion that while everyone believes it is easy to be subjective, he will reveal that subjectivity is in fact difficult to accomplish. In his opening gambit, he endeavours to “show how the simplest issue is changed … into the most difficult…. For example what it means to die.” After all, everyone imagines they know that they will perish. But is this a knowledge of something in general, something that is not yet subjective and fails to address the issue of what death means to me? At this juncture, our hero allots a full page registering the objective facts about death. He begins:
“On that topic (death) I know what people ordinarily know: that is, I swallow a dose of sulphuric acid I will die, likewise by drowning myself or sleeping in coal gas etc. I know that Napoleon always carried poison with him, that Shakespeare’s Juliet took it, that the Stoics regarded suicide as a courageous act and other regard it as cowardice.…”
The laundry list of facts continues until the author throws up his hands and proclaims, “despite this almost extraordinary knowledge or proficiency of knowledge, I am by no means able to regard death as something I have understood.” Why not? In part because in order to understand the meaning of my demise on a personal level, I need to grasp that death is a certain uncertainty. The subjective challenge then becomes, how do I think this most unsettling uncertainty into my daily life?
Tolstoy drives home the same point in his immortal Death of Ivan Ilyich, namely, that it is one thing to understand the syllogism: All humans are mortal; Socrates is human; ergo, Socrates is mortal. It is something else again to for me to feelingly fathom what it means that my days are numbered. Thinking myself dead is just one example of becoming subjective, but with resonances of the authenticity motif, Kierkegaard is endlessly prodding his readers to reflect on our personal relation to the ideas swimming around in our skulls. Do I really believe what I espouse or are they just talking points which I more than less mechanically recite?
In one of his most famous and infamously opaque sentences, the author behind the author of The Sickness unto Death wrote, “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.” In more ways than ten, Kierkegaard insists that humans are self-relating creatures. According to The Sickness onto Death, we have both infinite and finite aspects, we are endowed with possibility and anchored to necessity, and we have a temporal and an eternal dimension. This can sound like existential yak yak or the “jargon of authenticity”, but becoming a self is involves integrating these contradictory poles of our existence — and not on a merely intellectual or theoretical level. We are also relational creatures in that we are caught up in an ongoing dynamic relation with our thoughts and feelings. In his early twenties, before his authorship began, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he was searching for an idea that he could live or die for. That is, he was striving for subjectivity.
Like Nietzsche but with a different set of categories up his sleeves, Kierkegaard delivered a critique of the objective stance in life. For him, becoming objective did not necessarily entail a lack of passion. Kierkegaard understood objectivity to be a state in which the individual suppresses his or her self-concern, i.e. concern about what kind of individual I am or am becoming. While Kierkegaard affirmed that there are subject matters, e.g. maths and science, for which the objective stance is entirely appropriate, he was adamant that subjectivity is the desideratum with regard to ethico-religious matters.
True to his pietistic upbringing, subjectivity, inwardness, and earnestness were god-terms for Kierkegaard. On his reckoning, the erudite expend too much effort speculating on and accruing objective knowledge, but scant energy pondering the question of how to appropriate or bring that knowledge inward and mould their lives to their beliefs. One can only imagine how Kierkegaard would bury his head in his hands watching those of us who might sit by the fire enjoying a Netflix movie while “Liking” some social justice posting on Facebook. Ah! And he thought his age was suffering from an inwardness deficit!
In the introduction to The Concept of Anxiety, the pseudonymous author bemoans the fact philosophers, and especially the Hegelians, are guilty of category mistakes. More to his point, he chides his philosophical and theological brethren for treating a concept such as sin in psychological terms, as though it were something that we could and should cogitate about with objective indifference. Kierkegaard/ Haufniensis writes:
“When sin is treated in a place other than its own, it is altered by being subject to a nonessential refraction of reflection. The concept is altered, and thereby the mood that properly corresponds to the correct concept is also disturbed.”
Kierkegaard insists that there is a mood proper to every concept. When there is something awry with the mood, there is something awry with the idea. Thus, The Sickness unto Death informs us, “When the issue of sin is dealt with, one can observe by the very mood whether the concept is the correct one.” Pace Kierkegaard, a researcher on the Holocaust who pores over death camp documents in the mood of someone trying to chalk up publications would, for all his or her knowledge, have in some profound way misunderstood the Holocaust. In a footnote, Kierkegaard/Haufniensis pens this epiphanic observation:
“That science, just as much as poetry and art, presuppose a mood in the creator as well as in the observer, and that an error in the modulation is just as disturbing as an error in the development of thought, have been entirely forgotten in our time, when inwardness has been completely forgotten, and also the category of appropriation…”
Part of the “modulation” of a thought process is the mood accompanying that thought process. When we reflect on sin or, for that matter, love, in an objective mood we distort the concepts. The mood proper to thinking about ethics might be the firm resolve to overcome impediments to the moral life and become a good, kind, and righteous human being. No matter: as though ethics were chess or a crossword puzzle, contemporary philosophers lucubrate over ethics dilemmas as though they were problems sets in physics. That is the wrong mood and from at least one existentialist point of view; it belies a misunderstanding of ethics itself.
From the first to the last page of his authorship, Kierkegaard stresses appropriation and by that he means that when it comes to the essentials in life, we need what Philip Rieff called a “feeling intellect”. But true to the existential tradition, appropriation requires more than emotional fervour — it demands action, it requires that we walk our talk. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard/Anti-Climacus daubs a character who expresses feelings enough about self-sacrifice but fails to translate his ardent beliefs into action. He writes:
“It is exceedingly comic that a man, stirred to tears so that not only sweat but also tears pour down his face, can sit or read or hear an exposition on self-denial, on the nobility of sacrificing his life for the truth-and then in the next moment … almost with tears still in his eyes, be in full swing, in the sweat of his brow and to the best of his modest ability, helping untruth to be victorious.”
True to his favourite Bible text, the Letter of James and in harmony with the gospel of Sartre circa 1946, Kierkegaard writes, “Truth exists only as the individual produces it in action.”
For Kierkegaard there is no more serious goal in life than to become alvorlig — that is, serious or earnest. To become earnest is in effect to understand and strive to become (and yes I know that these terms will drive some to distraction) your true self. Despair (fortivelse) is a passive or actively produced state in which you are ignorant of and insouciant about becoming the self that you were intended to be. Clearly, Kierkegaard would have rejected the Sartrean shibboleth of existentialism — “existence precedes essence”.
In The Sickness unto Death the author tenders the idea that there are three selves: the concrete self, the ideal self, and your true self. For an individual mad with the aspiration to become say a doctor, the ideal self will wear a white coat and have a stethoscope slung over her shoulder. However, if medical school slams the door on this person’s face and becoming a physician becomes impossible, then her concrete self becomes a terrible burden since she does not want to be who she is unless “M.D.” can be affixed after her surname. In sum, it is a case of depression but also of despair because being swallowed up in this black and blue mood, she becomes oblivious to the task of becoming her true self, which for Kierkegaard is, among other things, an individual “who rests transparently in the power that established it”.
There are more spiritual perils ahead as Kierkegaard/Anti-Climacus warns that the individual who succeeds in merging their concrete and ideal selves, i.e., a person who fulfils her wildest ambition, is more likely than not, also in despair. After all, the self-satisfied and roundly admired find it all too easy to be blinkered by their success. On this point our virtuoso of suspicion and faith warns “for despair the most cherished and desirable place to live is in the heart of happiness”. Yes, you may have realised some ideal vision of yourself, but that by no means implies that you have become the spiritual being that you were intended to be.
Here there is an important distinction, one that is collapsed in our own age, between depression (a psychological malady) and despair (a spiritual illness). Happiness and depression are incompatible but not happiness and despair. For Kierkegaard, who was himself a card carrying melancholic but did not consider himself a case of despair, depression is a mood whereas despair is an activity of refusing to become who you are. To listen to this doctor of the soul and contrary to the common view, despair cannot be identified with any particular mood or feeling.
In contrast to despair, earnestness maintains awareness of the danger of forgetting your core task in life. However, earnestness is not a mood. Indeed, the earnest individual takes care how she reads and relates to her moods. In the discourse “At a Graveside” that was the seed for Heidegger’s concept of being- towards-death, Kierkegaard, now writing under his own name, conjures the image of a depressed fellow suffering through hard times and inclined to pull the blanket over his head and convince himself that life is meaningless, and spiritual and ethical aspirations just grandiose delusions. Again, the self is a relation that relates itself to itself which is, to repeat, we live in relation to our moods. We can take them one way or the other. The downcast individual who is free of despair, will relate himself to his funk, will grab himself by the collar and as Kierkegaard imagines it, he could well say to himself, “My soul is in a mood, and if it continues this way, then there is in it a hostility toward me that can gain domination.” A line later, Kierkegaard suggests that the poor soul trudging beneath the black sun will “summon the earnest thought of death” will summon not his objective knowledge of death, but his answer to the question, what does it mean that I will die? It means in part that your days are numbered, that you should be concerned, (subjective) and take care about what kind of person you are becoming.