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[The following material includes parts of a lecture delivered by TA Andrew Irvine in 1998.]


Themes in Existentialism
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Existentialism (Irvine)
Existentialist Themes (Irvine)
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): ‘The Father of Existentialism’ (Irvine)
Themes in Kierkegaard's Thought (Irvine)
Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Irvine)


Existentialism can be thought of as the twentieth-century analogue of nineteenth-century romanticism. The two movements have in common the demand that the whole fabric of life be recognized and taken into account in our thinking and acting. As such they express a form of resistance to reductionist analyses of life and its meaning for human beings. But there are also significant differences. Existentialism is typically focused on individual human lives and the poignant inevitability of suffering and choice for each individual whereas romanticism tended to be more oriented to the whole of nature and saw human beings as a part of that wider picture. Furthermore, romanticism flourished before the wars and genocides of the twentieth century whereas existentialism is born amid those horrors.

From one point of view, the existentialists divide roughly between writers (most famously, perhaps, Albert Camus) and philosophers. The philosophical existentialists divide roughly between the atheistic and the religious. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) ["the ultimate anti-Christianity Christian"] is often considered to be the father of them all, but Friedrich Nietzsche ["the ultimate anti-Christ philosopher"] is a crucial figure at the origins of the developing line of atheistic existentialism. Religious existentialists included both Jews such as Martin Buber (1878-1965) ["the Protestant Jew"] and Christians such as Paul Tillich (1886-1965) ["the Christian crypto-atheist infatuated with Being and God"]. Other religious existentialists include Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, and Karl Rahner. The atheistic existentialists include Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) ["the non-Christian atheist infatuated with Being and time"], though he denied that he was an existentialist, and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) [the ultimate atheist infatuated with Being and nothingness]. It is quite a cast of characters. And the classifications make less sense the better you know them, not least because it is hard to disentangle theism and atheism in the context of existential reflection on human life. The plan here is to examine a few themes commonly treated by existentialists and then to examine the thought of Kierkegaard more closely.

Themes in Existentialism

Here is a list of themes that are important in existentialism. They are not all taken up by every existentialist thinker and they are not entirely consistent with one another. But that’s life, right?

1. Importance of the individual

The leading question in this case is "What does it mean to be existing as a human being?" This question leads out in a number of directions.

  • There is a pressing question concerning what is right and wrong in a world of moral chaos.
  • There is the daunting issue of what constitutes a meaningful way of life in a world in which all talk of purposes has become obscure.
  • There is a realization that the human concerns and human experience count in a world that has proven to be mostly unknowable. This corresponds to a suspicion of the reductionistic and over-confident ways of science, philosophy, and metaphysics and also expresses continuity with the instincts of literature, poetry, and art.
  • The imperative to "be an individual!" takes on great importance as a way of orienting human life in a world described by these other considerations.

2. Importance of choice

We see this preeminently in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. But it is perhaps most colorfully expressed by Karl Rahner who described human beings as one giant decision (in his case, for or against God).

  • We are constituted by our decisions.
  • We cannot appeal to systems of law or convention or tradition as decisively furnishing instructions for life choices; every choice has to be personally appropriated.
  • In fact, being human sometimes involves decisions that transcend the realm of moral and conventional concerns.

3. Anxiety regarding life, death, contingencies, and extreme situations

Tillich’s formulation expresses this point beautifully: he speaks of our anxiety due to the "threat of non-being." The forms of non-being are many and various and each prefigures the ultimate loss of being that is death and the ultimate contingency of being that is birth. Both the chance events and extreme situations of life make evident the threat of non-being and cuase us anxiety.

  • Being human is finding oneself "thrown" (Heidegger) into a world with no clear logical, ontological, or moral structure.
  • We hide from death, from uncertainty, from ourselves, from Being-Itself (Tillich) with enormous creativity but with self-destructive consequences.
  • Extreme situations make our hiding impossible and so they often become the focus for philosophical and literary reflection on human anxiety.

4. Meaning and absurdity

Sartre spoke of an unfulfillable desire for complete fulfillment and thereby expressed the meaning of absurdity.

  • We are forced to ask ultimate questions by the very nature of our lives and by our yearning for orientation and purpose in our lives, yet decisive answers prove unachievable.
  • Meaning must therefore be constructed through courageous choice in the face of this absurd situation.
  • This kind of choice cannot be understood as achieving moral certainty; rather it is moral heroism within an essentially morally vague and chaotic world.

5. Authenticity

Sartre’s opposition to bad-faith (or self-deception) is an example of what is meant by authenticity; perhaps Heidegger’s expatiation of authentic existence is one of the most complete.

  • We need to face up to our situation rather than making things worse with self-deceptive approaches to religion, metaphysics, morality, or science.
  • We need to make decisions courageously; the key to this is accepting our own limitations and realizing that we cannot achieve certainty in the making of such decisions.
  • We need to be honest with ourselves and each other: we must not settle for less than the actual anxiety due us!

6. Social criticism

Many existentialists deconstructed social conventions and practices.

  • They are forms of hiding and expressions of fear and ignorance.
  • Sartre applied this kind of analysis to religion, society, morality, politics, psychoanalysis, scientism, technology, etc.
  • Existentialist literature often carried out this unmasking of convention and social patterns with enormous effect (especially in the novels of Camus).

7. Importance of personal relations

It must be said that the existentialist imperative to be an individual is front and center but another imperative becomes important in some existantialists (especially Buber): be an individual-in-community!

  • As the pitfalls of scientism show, relations to objects in the world are deceptive; the important relations are those between people (Buber’s I-Thou relation vs. I-It experience).
  • Creating meaning, if analyzed carefully, actually means creating and discovering relations between people.
  • Religious existentialists see the God-human relation as the ground of all relations between human beings.

8. Atheism and Religion

Here is one of the greatest disagreements among existentialists, testifying perhaps to the inescapable vagueness of the field of life within which human beings must make decisions that create meaning. Though the nature of that field of life and its ground are dramatically contested, all existentialists hold that a decision in relation to it is the key issue for human beings.

  • It has been said that the world is too small for more than one free reality. This implies that either God is free or human beings are, but not both. To say that both God and human beings are free leads to intolerable problems of theodicy and contradictions while to deny to freedom to both leads to an intolerably meaningless and actually impossible world. This assumption is shared by a strange, divrse group of thinkers.
  • Calvin and Spinoza said human beings are determined, in order to do justice to the freedom of God.
  • Sartre said human beings are free, so there can be no God. It is the conviction of human freedom (and really abandonment to freedom) that drives the atheist existentialist rejection of the reality of God.

9. Religion

Religion is a deeply contested point within existentialism

  • While some existentialists reject the reality of God, other existentialists have no problem with God and see an appropriate tension between divine and human freedom.
  • However, there is some agreement: all existentialists tend to be suspicious of religion as such (meaning religious organizations and religious systems).
  • Religious existentialists give profound analyses of ethical and religious choices that are interestingly different from the analyses of courageous choice furnished by atheistic existentialists. For example, Kierkegaard expounded on three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, stressing the rational unaproachability especially of the transition from the ethical to the religious; the criterialessness of the choice to be religious is essential to the life of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Life and Works

Kierkegaard wanted his tombstone to read: "Søren Kierkegaard (1813-...), That Individual." Here is a picture of the man and here is another.

He has been called the father of existentialism. This is appropriate even though he lived in the first half of the nineteenth century because his influence outside of Denmark was only pronounced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kierkegaard makes for interesting archetypal contrasts with other important thinkers, both before and after him. If Kant is the archetypal rationalist than Kierkegaard is the archetypal romantic. If Hegel is the archetypal systematician, resolving contradictions, Kierkegaard is the archtypal attender to details, relishing paradoxes. And while he shared with the atheist Nietzsche an impression of a harsh world, Kierkegaard thinks that God is the ground and end of the world and of every human longing.

The Three Stages

Kierkegaard’s great question was always "What ought I do?" His most famous answer to the question turns on a three-fold distinction of stages on life’s way.

  • The first stage is the aesthetic, the quest for sensual and intellectual pleasure. This eventually leads to boredom and then suicide, however, so there is an impulse to move to a form of life in which there is a conception of oughtness.
  • The second stage is thus the moral in which we freely align ourselves with the moral law, determined to be good. Hegel tried to synthesize the moral life and the aesthetic life but this is actually the highest form of aestheticism. Kierkegaard argued that a jump is involved in moving from one to the other and that we must simply choose.
  • The third stage is the religious in which we must be open to a teleological suspension of the ethical. In the religious life, divine command is paramount and true love for God is expressed in the willingness to set aside moral habits and respond to the divine command.

Whereas Kant took everything, even God, to be consistent with the moral imperative (this is really his definition of rationality), Kierkegaard argued that the divine command is rationally unapproachable; we must just do it. The contrast between the moral and religious stages is movingly expressed in the discussion of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trmbling. Abraham becomes for Kirkegaard the one whose life of faith (the religious stage) transcends moral categories through obedience to God (even divine whims).

The movement from the aesthetic to the ethical to the religious is premised on a vision of the holiness, the unaproachability of God; morality derives from God, it does not rule God. This has a very Lutheran, and actually Scotist, accent. God has set us in a situation in which these choices (particularly regarding the second movement) cannot be made rationally but are finally criterialess; this is essential to the life of faith. This is the brutal situation of human life and draws our attention to the fundamental character of decision: one’s very soul depends upon it.

Existentialism (Irvine)

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
Trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1944

What is Existentialism?

Professor Wildman has remarked that:

Existentialism can be thought of as the twentieth century analogue of nineteenth-century romanticism. The two movements have in common the demand that the whole fabric of life be recognized and taken into account in our thinking and acting. As such, they express a form of resistance to reductionistic analyses of life and its meaning for human beings. But there are also significant differences. Existentialism is typically focused on individual human lives and the poignant inevitability6 of suffering and choice for each individual whereas romanticism tended to be more oriented to the whole of nature and saw human beings as a part of that wider picture. Furthermore, romanticism flourished before the wars and genocides of the twentieth century whereas existentialism flourished amid those horrors (Wesley J. Wildman, ‘Existentialism,’ unpublished notes, 1996).

John Macquarrie has characterized existentialism as a ‘style of philosophizing,’ rather than as a philosophy (John Macquarrie, Existentialism (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 2). His intention is to recognize that a diversity of ideas, emphases, and conclusions are to be found among a group of various thinkers who, nevertheless, have enough in common in the way they think to warrant naming them together. Typically, existentialists take the existing human being as a starting point. The existing human being is distinct from objective nature as a whole because she is a subject, undetermined by laws of nature. She is distinct from previous modern, Western philosophical conceptions of the subject (e.g., the Cartesian) because she is subjective not just as a thinker but as one who acts. Again, she is distinct because she is preoccupied with the problematic finitude of her existing way of being. This last distinction is key. Existence understood as a distinctive way of being, is the common and fundamental concern of these thinkers. ‘What does it mean to be an existing human being?’

Existentialism has had at least as much impact through the arts, especially literature, as it has through philosophy. Albert Camus, author of L’Etranger (The Stranger) and La Peste (The Plague), among other novels, is perhaps the most famous of the existentialist artists. Jean-Paul Sartre won Nobel Prizes in philosophy and literature. La Nausée (Nausea) is probably his best known work of fiction. For the interests of this class, philosophical existentialism may be roughly divided into irreligious and religious existentialism. However it is very difficult to delineate exactly where the division should be drawn. Macquarrie calls Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), ‘the great Christian existentialist’ (ibid., 6). Nietzsche, the self-proclaimed ‘Anti-Christ,’ (though his sense of his own relationship to Christianity is remarkably complex and deep), is a crucial figure in the development of existentialism, too. Other religious existentialists include Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, and Christian theologians Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner. Gabriel Marcel and Karl Jaspers also line up in the religious ‘camp.’ Sartre, and the German, Martin Heidegger, are explicitly atheistic in their philosophical work, although the role of Heidegger’s atheism in his life as a whole is an important topic among some students of his work.

Existentialist Themes (Irvine)

Freedom and the necessity to choose

To be an existing human being means to be free. In contrast with most everything else in the world, a human being is not determined by ‘laws of nature.’ The human being has a unique freedom to determine his or her own behavior. However, this freedom is in itself a kind of determination which we cannot escape. We are ‘condemned to freedom.’ For the great majority, this tension is too great. As the pop group, Devo, put it in the 1980s, ‘Freedom of choice is what you’ve got. Freedom from choice is what you want.’

The lack of norms, and anxiety

Nature is an arena of facts, but the arena of human freedom is where norms and values feature. However, since nature does not supply them, our freedom is a freedom to make values and norms by which we will abide. The weight of this responsibility produces anxiety, also known as angst, or dread. For Kierkegaard, this is closely related to the guilt of a sinful existence.

Meaning and absurdity

Knowing that we are the ones who make the meaning of our lives also creates a tension when it comes to the validity of those meanings. There is a kind of bleak absurdity to the prospect of committing our lives to vales and meanings that we know ourselves to have invented.

Self-deception and authenticity

Nevertheless, to hide from the knowledge of our freedom and pass off our responsibility onto other people, ideas or institutions as if they can take care of our anxiety and absurdity is to engage in ‘bad faith,’ to use a term used by Sartre. To exist as a human being means to be willing to take up the challenge of one’s freedom. There is ‘no exit’ (the title of one of Sartre’s plays) by which we could get ourselves off the hook.

The individual and ‘they’

The demand for authenticity also has a social and a political dimension. Some existentialists have been extremely individualistic, while some have been involved in liberation movements. Again, consider Sartre: his comment that, ‘hell is other people’ is famous, as is his active support of the Algerian struggle for independence from France. Heidegger characterized the threat to authentic existence as ‘they’: for example, ‘they say one should always floss before bedtime’—who is ‘they,’ really, and who is ‘one’? Where is the actual, existing person. On the other hand, Buber argued that authentic existence was impossible without a serious relationship with other persons.

Irreligion and religion

The viability of religion is a contested matter among existentialists. Sartre argued that the existence of a God who was free, and so religiously interesting, would entail the cancellation of human freedom; but humans are free, therefore God does not exist. Others saw God as the ultimate Thou who, by engaging in relationship with us, could give authentic meaning to our otherwise absurd existence. Tillich was sympathetic to such a position.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): ‘The Father of Existentialism’ (Irvine)

Kierkegaard is often considered the ‘father of existentialism.’ Although he was active primarily in the first half of the nineteenth century, and dead shortly after it, he gained a sizeable audience outside his native Denmark only in our century.

SK was the youngest son of Mikael Kierkegaard, a quite wealthy merchant, and Anne Lund. His father was an important influence in his early childhood, inculcating expectations of intellectual depth, theatrical flair and emotive pietist religion. SK was academically gifted, but his appearance—skinny, awkward, and apparently with some spinal deformation—made him the victim of children’s cruelty. He could give as good as he got, though. Stories suggest he could reduce a bully to tears with verbal jibes and derision.

SK’s youthful intention was to become a Lutheran pastor. He enrolled in theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1830. There, he encountered the Hegelian system, which reigned in Danish theological and philosophical circles at the time. The philosophy of Hegel is one of the most powerful intellectual influences upon SK’s own thought. He often referred to it as simply, ‘The System.’ He was deeply attracted to it at first, but came to be deeply offended by what he took to be its ignorance and disdain for ‘a truth which is true for me, … the idea for which I can live and die’ (Journal, Aug. 1, 1835). By the time his own writing career began, in 1841, the System’s influence was primarily as a peerless example of human arrogance and farce. However, the state-supported Danish Lutheran Church also failed to satisfy SK’s want of a truth that was true for him. Desperate, going against the philosophical mode and religiously estranged from his father, SK commenced a period of rebellious, rakish living in Copenhagen. He found neither liberty nor consolation in this. Thus commenced a gradual return to Christianity. On his 25th birthday he thoroughly reconciled with his father, and a few days later had some kind of ‘conversion’ experience. Shortly after these events his father died. SK resolved to return to the University and complete his studies in order to become a pastor. His Master’s thesis, The Concept of Irony, gives an indication of SK’s abilities. It was written ironically as well as being about irony. One of the readers commented to the effect that it was, perhaps, the most brilliant work he had ever read, and he hoped he would never see anything like it again.

Three highly public episodes in SK’s life should be noted. The first is his relationship with Regina Olsen. In 1840, SK completed his degree and became engaged to Regina. However, he almost at once discovered a doubt about the fitness of the marriage. He came to believe that the marriage had received a ‘divine veto,’ and eventually—almost a year after the engagement, returned the ring to her. Regina was unconvinced of his sincerity, and for two months, SK sought to break her attachment to him by misrepresenting himself as a scoundrel who had abused Regine’s affection. Only in this way, he believed, could he be sure to give her the strength to make her own way after such humiliation. Yet, he, too, hoped against hope that a marriage might yet be possible, and the argument of Fear and Trembling, one of two works written during those two months, reflects SK’s passionate hope. He attributed his ‘poetic’ vocation to Regina, and it was a poetic ‘madness’ equaled by very few writers. His output, in volume and creativity, is prodigious. Some Kierkegaard scholars claim that he ‘wrote himself to death’ (Anthony Imbrosciano, personal communication). The editors of Concluding Unscientific Postscript describe an example of his literary feats:

[Concluding Unscientific Postscript] appeared February 28, 1846, scarcely twenty-one months after the triple publication of [Philosophical] Fragments (June 13, 1844), The Concept of Anxiety (June 17, 1844), and Prefaces (June 17, 1844). According to the statement in Fragments, the copious clothed counterpart that eventually became Postscript was obviously on the agenda, and to write such a substantial work [over 600 pages in the current English edition] would scarcely constitute literary loitering. To maintain the appearance of an idler, however, in order to aid in masking the pseudonymity begun with Either/Or, Kierkegaard, while writing Postscript and other works, continued to be Copenhagen’s premier peripatetic, made a journey to Berlin, and averaged an excursion to points on Sjaelland about every ten days. There were also three intervening publications…. In addition, the writing of Two Ages was begun late in 1845. Despite the brevity of time and the amazingly prolific productivity during that period of twenty-one months, the writing of Postscript involved sketches, a preliminary draft, a second draft, and a final copy. (SK (Johannes Climacus), Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, vol. II, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong with introduction and notes (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), vii-viii.)

SK loved the street-life of Copenhagen, and was undoubtedly the most-widely known person in the city. But after publishing a short, critical piece on a popular weekly, The Corsair, in 1845, this enjoyment would be poisoned. He was relentlessly and mercilessly mocked and ridiculed, to the point that even in the countryside, former acquaintances retreated from him in suspicion or flung at him mockery and scorn. The Corsair was little else than a ‘sophisticated scandal-sheet’ (Mark C. Taylor, ‘Kierkegaard,’ Encyclopedia of Religion) at the best of times, and the fact that none of Copenhagen’s educated elite gave any support to SK, deepened his alienation from the Danish bourgeoisie. The affair marked a turning-point, away from pseudonymous writing to concentrate on a ‘Christian’ authorship written in his own name, and a vehement public protest against ‘Christendom.’ As part of this attack, SK sat outside churches on Sundays, reading the newspaper, and remonstrating with people not to go in. In 1855, SK collapsed in the street after delivering what proved to be the final issue of his magazine, The Moment, to the printer. He died a few weeks later, affirming his strong Christian faith but refusing to receive communion from a priest of the Danish church. He wished that his epitaph say of him only, ‘That Individual.’ His wish was denied.

Themes in Kierkegaard's Thought (Irvine)

Genesis 22: 1-8.

Is Abraham a great soul, a beautiful soul? Is he perhaps a tragic ethical hero? Or is he something else instead?

Fides quaerens intellectum

SK has been criticized—or lauded—by a number of commentators who call him an antiphilosopher. In the relation between theology and philosophy, SK may be considered as an opponent of the tradition of faith seeking understanding in this respect, that SK rejects any claim that it is possible to ‘go beyond’ faith, that philosophical understanding can add anything to faith. This is basic to his disagreement with Hegel. Louis Pojman has argued that SK is not an antiphilosopher, that he does in fact have a positive conception of the role of philosophy in demonstrating some truths (Louis P. Pojman, The Logic of Subjectivity: Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Religion (University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1984)). However, he also insists upon that role as involving the demonstration of the limits of reason, a ‘debt’ linking SK to Kant’s epistemological position (Xxxxx, Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt). Yet, Kierkegaard also disagrees with Kant’s decision to make the ethical the supreme expression of religious existence.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the pseudonymous Johannes Climacus describes three stages of human development and possibility. This book is one of SK’s finest statements of an answer to the great existential question, what ought I to do? The three stages are the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.

The Aesthetic Stage

In Hegelian speculation, morality and religion are partial recognitions of the movement of Spirit towards its final and absolute self-realization. Philosophy grasps Geist truly and completely, in the form of the absolute concept. The concept, strictly speaking, is neither a moral principle or stance, nor a religious belief or faith, but the content of consciousness that is conscious of itself. ‘The System’ is reprehensible in SK’s view because it dissolves the concreteness of individual existence, characterized by the necessity to choose. In its stead, the System claims to understand everything in its entirety. SK castigates this as the most dishonest, most comical pretense of the aesthetic way of living. The aesthete cares only about detached, objective enjoyment, free from any responsibility to actually engage with his existence as such. But existence cannot be detached and indifferent: ‘Existence itself is a system—for God, but it cannot be a system for any existing (existerende) spirit…. Existence is the spacing that holds apart; the systematic is the conclusiveness that combines’ (SK, Postscript, 118). Within the spacing of existence lies the comical aspect of Hegel’s philosophy:

By beginning straightway with ethical categories against the objective tendency, one does wrong and fails to hit the mark, because one has nothing in common with the attacked. But by remaining within the metaphysical, one can employ the comic, which also is in the metaphysical sphere, in order to overtake such a transfigured professor. If a dancer could leap very high, we would admire him, but if he wanted to give the impression that he could fly—even though he could leap higher than any dancer had ever leapt before—let laughter overtake him. Leaping means to belong essentially to the earth and to respect the law of gravity so that the leap is merely the momentary, but flying means to be set free from telluric conditions, something that is reserved exclusively for winged creatures, perhaps also for inhabitants of the moon, perhaps—and perhaps that is also where the system will at long last find its true readers (ibid., 124).

Hegel claims to objectively understand a conceptual necessity that explains everything in the unfolding saga of Spirit’s progress. SK counters that concepts are mere possibilities unless they are actualized by some individual’s subjective decision, and decision as such cannot proceed from understanding but must be a matter of passion. Hegel’s achievement is monumental, but he has absentmindedly forgotten—himself, his own subjective opposition to the universal, objective system he has made. ‘The system’ denies the true foundation of decision in absolute, irremediably finite, individual subjectivity:

[W]hat is existence for but to be laughed at if men in their twenties have already attained the utmost? And for all that, what loftier emotion has the age found since men gave up entering the monastery? Is it not a pitiable prudence, shrewdness, faintheartedness, it has found, which sits in high places and cravenly makes men believe they have accomplished the greatest things and insidiously withholds them from attempting to do even the lesser things? (SK (Johannes de Silentio), Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, trans. With introduction and notes by Walter Lowrie (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1954), 110.)

The Ethical Stage

An actual aesthete find that her existence leads to boredom and eventually suicide, so there is an impulse to move to a form of life in which there is a concept of oughtness to discipline the aesthete’s pleasure. This concept marks the ethical stage. It cannot be attained as a natural development out of the aesthetic stage, but involves a ‘leap.’

SK understands ethics under Kant’s influence. The ethical as such is the universal, and the goal of the ethical form of life is to reconcile, or resign, the individual and particular to the universal. Compare this with Kant’s formulation of the condition of possibility of ethical action: ‘Act only on that maxim which one could will to be a universal law.’

However, as mentioned above, the ethical is not the highest stage in Kierkegaard’s assessment. ‘Whereas Kant took everything, even God, to be consistent with the moral imperative … Kierkegaard argued that the divine command is rationally unapproachable; we must just do it’ (Wildman).

The Religious Stage

A movement into the religious form of life from the ethical is not possible, because the ethical life is one of reconciliation between the individual and the universal. The ethical person’s existence is mediated through the universal. SK analyzes religiousness in two forms, in the Postscript, but we shall limit ourselves to considering the distinctive character of true religious life, which is faith. The ethical life is one of reconciliation. The life of faith is a life in paradox. According to Johannes de Silentio: ‘The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal, that the individual (to recall a dogmatic distinction now rather seldom heard) determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the universal. The paradox can also be expressed by saying that there is an absolute duty toward God…. (Fear and Trembling, 80)

Faith involves a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham:

… acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely absurd that he as the particular is higher than the universal. This paradox cannot be mediated; for as soon as he begins to do this he has to admit that he was in temptation, and if such was the case, he never gets to the point of sacrificing Isaac, or, if he has sacrificed Isaac, he must turn back repentantly to the universal. By virtue of the absurd he gets Isaac again. Abraham is therefore at no instant a tragic hero but something quite different, either a murderer of a believer (ibid., 67).

Truth is Subjectivity

‘The conclusions of passion are the only reliable ones, that is, the only convincing ones’ (ibid., 109). ‘Faith is the highest passion in a man. There are perhaps many in every generation who do not reach it, but no one gets further’ (ibid., 131). Becoming a Christian. The existing person who chooses the subjective way instantly comprehends the whole dialectical difficulty because he must use some time, perhaps a long time, to find God objectively. He comprehends this dialectical difficulty in all its pain, because he must resort to God at that very moment, because every moment in which he does not have God is wasted. At that very moment he has God, not by virtue of any objective deliberation but by virtue of the infinite passion of inwardness (Postscript, 200).

Truth is, ‘an objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness’ (ibid., 203).

With regard to the essential truth, a direct relation between spirit and spirit is unthinkable. If such a relation is assumed, it actually means that one party has ceased ton be spirit, something that is not borne in mind by many a genius who both assists people en masse into the truth and is good-natured enough to think that applause, willingness to listen, signatures, etc. mean accepting the truth. Just as important as the truth, and of the two the even more important one, is the mode in which the truth is accepted, and it is of slight help if one gets millions to accept the truth if by the very mode of their acceptance they are transposed into untruth (ibid., 247).

Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Irvine)

Everything I have said today about Kierkegaard, about his thought, is a lie.

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