Archetypes of Wisdom Douglas J. Soccio Chapter 14 The Existentialist: Søren Kierkegaard
Learning Objectives • On completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions: • What is existentialism? • What was the Kierkegaard Family curse? • Who was Regina Olsen, and what role did she play in Kierkegaard’s philosophy? • What is inauthenticity? • What is authenticity? • What does Kierkegaard mean by “becoming a subject”? • What are the three “Stages on Life’s Way”? • What is Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith? • What does Kierkegaard mean by “edification”?
Existentialism • Existentialism refers to any philosophy that asserts that the most important philosophical matters involve fundamental questions of meaning and choice as they affect actual individuals. • Existentialists point out that objective science and rationalistic philosophy cannot come to grips with the real problem of human existence. • Existentialists believe that general answers, grand metaphysical systems, and objective theories cannot address the concrete concerns of living individuals.
Søren Kierkegaard • The work of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was virtually ignored during his lifetime – partly because he wrote in Danish, partly because of what he wrote, and partly because of his brilliant use of sarcasm and irony. • Kierkegaard rebelled against both “the system” and objectivity, so his work confounds easy classification. • His “unscientific” and “unsystematic” attacks on conventional Christian theology and dogma, on science, and professional philosophy took the form of satirical essays, parables, anecdotes, and real and fictional journals. • Kierkegaard saw himself as a disciple of Socrates, and like Socrates, Kierkegaard’s life and work make a seamless whole.
Kierkegaard and the Family Curse • Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, the youngest of seven children, Søren was deeply and permanently influenced by his father Michael, a strict and devout Lutheran. • Michael Kierkegaard lived his life without peace of mind for his two “great sins” – cursing God and having sexual relations with a housemaid right after his wife had died. • Søren carried his father’s legacy – a sense of despair and melancholy, and an obsession with the possibility of a finite individual’s relationship with an infinite God.
The Life of Kierkegaard • In 1830, Kierkegaard enrolled in the University of Copenhagen to study theology, but soon discovered it did not interest him as much as philosophy and literature. • He spent the next ten years drinking and attending the theatre. • In 1838, just before his father died, Søren returned to theology, passing his exams with honors in 1840. • Then, at the age of twenty seven, Kierkegaard fell in love with a fourteen-year-old girl, Regina Olsen, and the two became engaged when she turned seventeen.
The Universal Formula • Kierkegaard quickly broke off the engagement, but struggled for the rest of his life to explain why (one possibility is the conformity marriage suggested). • In 1843, weeks after his “sacrifice” of Regina, he fled to Berlin, writing Either/Or, A Fragment of Life, his first important work, and Repetition: An Essay inExperimental Psychology, through which he hoped to reconnect with her. • Kierkegaard interpreted the story of Isaac being returned to Abraham to mean that if you give up something for God, you get it back plus the love and salvation of God. • Applying this universal formula to himself, he “reasoned” that if he gave up Regina to devote himself to God, he would get both.
The Christian • Struggling with the existential predicament of choice and commitment, Kierkegaard grew increasingly interested in what it meant to be a Christian. • He became convinced that institutionalized Christianity suffers the same inauthenticity as other institutions. • Inauthenticity results when the nature and needs of the individual are ignored, denied, obscured, or made less important than institutions, abstractions, or groups. • Authenticity is the subjective condition of an individual living honestly and courageously in the moment without refuge in excuses or reliance on groups or institutions for meaning and purpose.
That Individual • On October 2, 1855, Kierkegaard visited his banker brother-in-law to withdraw the last of his money. Going home, he fell to the street, paralyzed from the waist down. • Destitute, helpless, and weak, Søren Kierkegaard died quietly November 11, 1855 at the age of forty-two, and was buried in the huge Cathedral Church of Copenhagen. • The most interesting epitaph for Kierkegaard is found in his own words: • “The Martyrdom this author suffered may be briefly described thus: He suffered from being a genius in a provincial town The standard he applied…was on the average too great for his contemporaries…Yet he himself was that individual if no one else was, and became that more and more.”
Truth as Subjectivity • The major existential issue is, “How am I to exist?” • As Kierkegaard pointed out, any choice, once made, rules out all other possibilities. • The basic fact of Kierkegaard’s project, as he referred to his existentialism, is the dilemma of lived choices: • I must find a truth for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. • For Kierkegaard, no amount of objective, abstract knowledge could ever provide a meaning for life. • Truth is a subjective condition, not an objective one. • Kierkegaard rejects any descriptive or systematic approach to dealing with “that individual.”
Objectivity as Untruth • For the most part, philosophers have agreed that arguments should be evaluated rationally and objectively. • But Kierkegaard vehemently disagreed, considering objectivity and impartiality to be dangerous delusions. • Not only is impartiality impossible, but claims of objectivity and disinterestedness are always lies. • Preferring objective impartiality to subjective involvement is itself a bias. • Favoring objectivity is a form of partiality.
Objectivity as Untruth • Moreover, “reason” is a mere abstraction, a noble-sounding term that conceals an individual, subjective choice. • To complicate matters even more, the impersonal quality of objective language reduces the uniqueness of individual existence to mere generalizations, abstractions, and features held in common. • What is individual is not described.
The Present Age • Kierkegaard lamented what he termed the “massing of society.” • In contemporary society “the crowd” overwhelms the individual, yet the individual feels lost without “the crowd.” • Modern people are anonymous creatures who depend upon experts to point the way towards salvation. • Rather than being themselves, modern people simply conform to an abstract type. • Modern people are reduced to numerical equal at the expense of their own authenticity.
Becoming a Subject • For Kierkegaard, an individual exists (specifically as a Christian) when the individual appropriates his or her belief by taking it up subjectively. • There is a qualitative difference between what we often call “existence” and what Kierkegaard means by truly existing. • To act is not merely to behave but to assent with one’s whole being, even though one lacks sufficient objective information.
Stages on Life’s Way • According to Kierkegaard, “Without God [a man] is never essentially himself (which one is only by being before God) and therefore never satisfied with being himself.” • Kierkegaard offers a series of sketches and descriptions of a dialectical process that involve what David E. Cooper calls, “intimations of a self-reflective kind that indicate, however inchoately, something about themselves.” • What Kierkegaard refers to as “stages on life’s way” are three explicit ways of choosing to live: • The aesthetic stage. • The ethical stage. • The religious stage.
The Aesthetic Stage • The aesthetic stage is a futile fight against boredom, characterized by the pursuit of pleasure, especially sensuous pleasure. • It is the lowest of Kierkegaard's three stages on life's way. • He considers it immoral, exemplified by Don Juan. • The aesthetic is primarily concerned with individual experience, and individual sensory experience in particular. • An aesthetic experience could range from animalistic lusts to a deep appreciation of music, but it always relates to the single individual to something else.
The Ethical Stage • The second of Kierkegaard’s stages, the ethical stage, is a way of life that involves making commitments to the norms and customs of one’s society. • It is devoted to the general (universal) principles that are continually revised according to changing humanistic values. • One acts for the betterment of others rather than for oneself. • The ethical stage is secularly moral and exemplified by Kantian ethics.
Something Higher than Ethics • Hegel considered the ethical to be the highest form of life, and Kierkegaard agrees that it is the highest that can be understood. • However, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling argues that there is the third category – that of the religious – and that the religious is higher than the ethical.
The Religious Stage • For Kierkegaard, the religious stage of life is the highest. It is the only authentic way of living. • Only the religious life acknowledges our dual nature and provides a way for the individual to transform the particular into the universal. • The religious stage involves a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” • It can only be achieved by a “leap of faith,” exemplified by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. • From any perspective but that of faith, what Abraham did was absurd. • Only faith allows us to be our authentic, existing selves.
Discussion Questions • Sketch and analyze Kierkegaard’s critique of “false Christianity” by contrasting Kierkegaard’s existentialist idea of faith with the more common conceptions of faith as belief. How are they similar? How are they different? • What, for Kierkegaard, constitutes “being a Christian”? Why did, and do, so many people who see themselves as Christians find Kierkegaard’s point of view offensive and wrongheaded? What do you think?
Chapter Review:Key Concepts • Existentialism • Inauthenticity • Authenticity • Objectivity • Impartiality • Massing of society • The crowd • Aesthetic stage • Ethical stage • Religious stage