Kierkagaard

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Kierkagaard


Soren Kierkegaard
Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (b.1813, d. 1855) was a profound and prolific writer in the Danish
"golden age" of intellectual and artistic activity. His work crosses the boundaries of
philosophy, theology, psychology, literary criticism, devotional literature and fiction.
Kierkegaard brought this potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for
the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom. At the same time he made many
original conceptual contributions to each of the disciplines he employed. He is known as
the "father of existentialism", but at least as important are his critiques of Hegel and
of the German romantics, his contributions to the development of modernism, his literary
experimentation, his vivid re-presentation of biblical figures to bring out their modern
relevance, his invention of key concepts which have been explored and redeployed by
thinkers ever since, his interventions in contemporary Danish church politics, and his
fervent attempts to analyse and revitalise Christian faith. Kierkegaard burned with the
passion of a religious poet, was armed with extraordinary dialectical talent, and drew on
vast resources of erudition.


Kierkegaard's Life
Kierkegaard led a somewhat uneventful life. He rarely left his hometown of Copenhagen, and
travelled abroad only three times - to Berlin. His prime recreational activities were
attending the theatre, walking the streets of Copenhagen to chat with ordinary people, and
taking brief carriage jaunts into the surrounding countryside. He was educated at a
prestigious boys' school (Borgedydskolen), then attended Copenhagen University where he
studied philosophy and theology. His teachers at the university included F.C. Sibbern,
Poul Martin Moller, and H.L. Martensen.

Sibbern and Moller were both philosophers who also wrote fiction. The latter in particular
had a great influence on Kierkegaard's philosophico-literary development. Martensen also
had a profound effect on Kierkegaard, but largely in a negative manner. Martensen was a
champion of Hegelianism, and when he became Bishop Primate of the Danish People's Church,
Kierkegaard published a vitriolic attack on Martensen's theological views. Kierkegaard's
brother Peter, on the other hand, was an adherent of Martensen and himself became a bishop
in the church.

Another very important figure in Kierkegaard's life was J.L. Heiberg, the doyen of
Copenhagen's literati. Heiberg, more than any other person, was responsible for
introducing Hegelianism into Denmark. Kierkegaard spent a good deal of energy trying to
break into the Heiberg literary circle, but desisted once he had found his own voice in
The Concept of Irony. Kierkegaard's first major publication, From the Papers of One Still
Living, is largely an attempt to articulate a Heibergian aesthetics - which is a modified
version of Hegel's aesthetics. In From the Papers of One Still Living, which is a critical
review of Hans Christian Andersen's novel Only A Fiddler, Kierkegaard attacks Andersen for
lacking life-development (Livs-Udvikling) and a life-view (Livs-Anskuelse) both of which
Kierkegaard deemed necessary for someone to be a genuine novelist (Romandigter).

Kierkegaard's life is more relevant to his work than is the case for many writers. Much of
the thrust of his critique of Hegelianism is that its system of thought is abstracted from
the everyday lives of its proponents. This existential critique consists in demonstrating
how the life and work of a philosopher contradict one another. Kierkegaard derived this
form of critique from the Greek notion of judging philosophers by their lives rather than
simply by their intellectual artefacts. The Christian ideal, according to Kierkegaard, is
even more exacting since the totality of an individual's existence is the artefact on the
basis of which s/he is judged by God for h/er eternal validity. Of course a writer's work
is an important part of h/er existence, but for the purpose of judgement we should focus
on the whole life not just on one part.

In a less abstract manner, an understanding of Kierkegaard's biography is important for an
understanding of his writing because his life was the source of many of the preoccupations
and repetitions within his oeuvre. Because of his existentialist orientation, most of his
interventions in contemporary theory do double duty as means of working through events
from his own life. In particular Kierkegaard's relations to his mother, his father, and
his fiancee Regine Olsen pervade his work.

Kierkegaard's relation to his mother is the least frequently commented upon since it is
invisible in his work. His mother does not rate a direct mention in his published works,
or in his diaries - not even on the day she died. However, for a writer who places so much
emphasis on indirect communication, and on the semiotics of invisibility, we should regard
this absence as significant. Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript
remarks, "... how deceptive then, that an omnipresent being should be recognisable
precisely by being invisible." Kierkegaard's mother, who was not well educated, is
represented in his writings by the mother-tongue (Danish). Kierkegaard was deeply
enamoured of the Danish language and worked throughout his writings to assert the
strengths of his mother-tongue over the invasive, imperialistic influences of Latin and
German. With respect to the former, Kierkegaard had to petition the king to be allowed to
write his philosophy dissertation On the Concept of Irony with constant reference to
Socrates in Danish. Even though permission was granted he was still required to defend his
dissertation publicly in Latin. Latin had been the pan-European language of science and
scholarship. In Denmark, in Kierkegaard's time, German language and culture were at least
as dominant as Latin in the production of knowledge. In defiance of this, Kierkegaard
revelled in his mother-tongue and created some of the most beautifully poetic prose in the
Danish language - including a paeon to his mother-tongue in Stages On Life's Way. In
Repetition Constantin Constantius congratulates the Danish language on providing the word
for an important new philosophical concept, viz. Gjentagelse (repetition), to replace the
foreign word "mediation". In general, the Danish language is Kierkegaard's umbilical
attachment to the mother whereas Latin and German represent the law of the father,
especially when employed in systematic scholarship (Videnskab).

The influence of Kierkegaard's father on his work has been frequently noted. Not only did
Kierkegaard inherit his father's melancholy, his sense of guilt and anxiety, and his
pietistic emphasis on the dour aspects of Christian faith, but he also inherited his
talents for philosophical argument and creative imagination. In addition Kierkegaard
inherited enough of his father's wealth to allow him to pursue his life as a freelance
writer. The themes of sacrificial father/son relationships, of inherited sin, of the
burden of history, and of the centrality of the "individual, human existence relationship,
the old text, well known, handed down from the fathers" (Postscript) are repeated many
times in Kierkegaard's oeuvre. The father's sense of guilt was so great (for having cursed
God? for having impregnated Kierkegaard's mother out of wedlock?) that he thought God
would punish him by taking the lives of all seven of his children before they reached the
age of 34 (the age of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion). This was born out for all but two
of the children, Soren and his older brother Peter, both of whom were astonished to
survive beyond that age. This may explain the sense of urgency that drove Kierkegaard to
write so prolifically in the years leading up to his 34th birthday.

Kierkegaard's (broken) engagement to Regine Olsen has also been the focus of much
scholarly attention. The theme of a young woman being the occasion for a young man to
become "poeticized" recurs in Kierkegaard's writings, as does the theme of the sacrifice
of worldly happiness for a higher (religious) purpose. Kierkegaard's infatuation with
Regine, and the sublimated libidinal energy it lent to his poetic production, were crucial
for setting his life course. The breaking of the engagement allowed Kierkegaard to devote
himself monastically to his religious purpose, as well as to establish his outsider status
(outside the norm of married bourgeois life). It also freed him from close personal
entanglements with women, thereby leading him to objectify them as ideal creatures, and to
reproduce the patriarchal values of his church and father.

Kierkegaard's Rhetoric
Kierkegaard's central problematic was how to become a Christian in Christendom. The task
was most difficult for the well-educated, since prevailing educational and cultural
institutions tended to produce stereotyped members of "the crowd" rather than to allow
individuals to discover their own unique identities. This problem was compounded by the
fact that Denmark had recently and very rapidly been transformed from a feudal society
into a capitalist society. Universal elementary education, large-scale migration from
rural areas into cities, and greatly increased social mobility meant that the social
structure changed from a rigidly hierarchical one to a relatively "horizontal" one. In
this context it became increasingly difficult to "become who you are" for two reasons: (i)
social identities were unusually fluid; and (ii) there was a proliferation of normalizing
institutions which produced pseudo-individuals.

Given this problematic in this social context Kierkegaard perceived a need to invent a
form of communication which would not produce stereotyped identities. On the contrary, he
needed a form of rhetoric which would force people back onto their own resources, to take
responsibility for their own existential choices, and to become who they are beyond their
socially imposed identities. In this undertaking Kierkegaard was inspired by the figure of
Socrates, whose incessant irony undermined all knowledge claims that were taken for
granted or unreflectively inherited from traditional culture. In his dissertation On the
Concept of Irony with constant reference to Socrates Kierkegaard argued that the
historical Socrates used his irony in order to facilitate the birth of subjectivity in his
interlocutors. Because they were constantly forced to abandon their pat answers to
Socrates' annoying questions, they had to begin to think for themselves and to take
individual responsibility for their claims about knowledge and value.

Kierkegaard sought to provide a similar service for his own contemporaries. He used irony,
parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques in order to make conventionally
accepted forms of knowledge and value untenable. He was a gadfly - constantly irritating
his contemporaries with discomforting thoughts. He was also a midwife - assisting at the
birth of individual subjectivity by forcing his contemporaries to think for themselves.
His art of communication became "the art of taking away" since he thought his audience
suffered from too much knowledge rather than too little.

Hegelianism promised to make absolute knowledge available by virtue of a science of logic.
Anyone with the capacity to follow the dialectical progression of the purportedly
transparent concepts of Hegel's logic would have access to the mind of God (which for
Hegel was equivalent to the logical structure of the universe). Kierkegaard thought this
to be the hubristic attempt to build a new tower of Babel, or a scala paradisi - a
dialectical ladder by which humans can climb with ease up to heaven. Kierkegaard's
strategy was to invert this dialectic by seeking to make everything more difficult.
Instead of seeing scientific knowledge as the means of human redemption, he regarded it as
the greatest obstacle to redemption. Instead of seeking to give people more knowledge he
sought to take away what passed for knowledge. Instead of seeking to make God and
Christian faith perfectly intelligible he sought to emphasize the absolute transcendence
by God of all human categories. Instead of setting himself up as a religious authority,
Kierkegaard used a vast array of textual devices to undermine his authority as an author
and to place responsibility for the existential significance to be derived from his texts
squarely on the reader.

Kierkegaard distanced himself from his texts by a variety of devices which served to
problematize the authorial voice for the reader. He used pseudonyms in many of his works
(both overtly aesthetic ones and overtly religious ones). He partitioned the texts into
prefaces, forewords, interludes, postscripts, appendices. He assigned the "authorship" of
parts of texts to different pseudonyms, and invented further pseudonyms to be the editors
or compilers of these pseudonymous writings. Sometimes Kierkegaard appended his name as
author, sometimes as the person responsible for publication, sometimes not at all.
Sometimes Kierkegaard would publish more than one book on the same day. These simultaneous
books embodied strikingly contrasting perspectives. He also published whole series of
works simultaneously, viz. the pseudonymous works on the one hand and on the other hand
the Edifying Discourses published under his own name.

All of this play with narrative point of view, with contrasting works, and with
contrasting internal partitions within individual works leaves the reader very
disoriented. In combination with the incessant play of irony and Kierkegaard's
predilection for paradox and semantic opacity, the text becomes a polished surface for the
reader in which the prime meaning to be discerned is the reader's own reflection.
Christian faith, for Kierkegaard, is not a matter of learning dogma by rote. It is a
matter of the individual repeatedly renewing h/er passionate subjective relationship to an
object which can never be known, but only believed in. This belief is offensive to reason,
since it only exists in the face of the absurd (the paradox of the eternal, immortal,
infinite God being incarnated in time as a finite mortal).

Kierkegaard's "method of indirect communication" was designed to sever the reliance of the
reader on the authority of the author and on the received wisdom of the community. The
reader was to be forced to take individual responsibility for knowing who s/he is and for
knowing where s/he stands on the existential, ethical and religious issues raised in the
texts.

Kierkegaard's "inverted Christian dialectic" was designed not to make the word of God
easier to assimilate, but to establish more clearly the absolute distance that separates
human beings from God. This was in order to emphasize that human beings are absolutely
reliant on God's grace for salvation.

Kierkegaard's Aesthetics
Kierkegaard presents his pseudonymous authorship as a dialectical progression of
existential stages. The first is the aesthetic, which gives way to the ethical, which
gives way to the religious. The aesthetic stage of existence is characterized by the
following: immersion in sensuous experience; valorization of possibility over actuality;
egotism; fragmentation of the subject of experience; nihilistic wielding of irony and
scepticism; and flight from boredom.

The figure of the aesthete in the first volume of Either-Or is an ironic portrayal of
German romanticism, but it also draws on medieval characters as diverse as Don Juan,
Ahasverus (the wandering Jew), and Faust. It finds its most sophisticated form in the
author of "The Seducer's Diary", the final section of Either-Or. Johannes the seducer is a
reflective aesthete, who gains sensuous delight not so much from the act of seduction but
from engineering the possibility of seduction. His real aim is the manipulation of people
and situations in ways which generate interesting reflections in his own voyeuristic mind.
The aesthetic perspective transforms quotidian dullness into a richly poetic world by
whatever means it can. Sometimes the reflective aesthete will inject interest into a book
by reading only the last third, or into a conversation by provoking a bore into an
apoplectic fit so that he can see a bead of sweat form between the bore's eyes and run
down his nose. That is, the aesthete uses artifice, arbitrariness, irony, and wilful
imagination to recreate the world in his own image. The prime motivation for the aesthete
is the transformation of the boring into the interesting.

This type of aestheticism is criticized from the point of view of ethics. It is seen to be
emptily self-serving and escapist. It is a despairing means of avoiding commitment and
responsibility. It fails to acknowledge one's social debt and communal existence. And it
is self-deceiving insofar as it substitutes fantasies for actual states of affairs.

But Kierkegaard did not want to abandon aesthetics altogether in favor of the ethical and
the religious. A key concept in the Hegelian dialectic, which Kierkegaard's pseudonymous
authorship parodies, is Aufhebung (sublation). In Hegel's dialectic, when contradictory
positions are reconciled in a higher unity (synthesis) they are both annulled and
preserved (aufgehoben). Similarly with Kierkegaard's pseudo-dialectic: the aesthetic and
the ethical are both annulled and preserved in their synthesis in the religious stage. As
far as the aesthetic stage of existence is concerned what is preserved in the higher
religious stage is the sense of infinite possibility made available through the
imagination. But this no longer excludes what is actual. Nor is it employed for egotistic
ends. Aesthetic irony is transformed into religious humor, and the aesthetic
transfiguration of the actual world into the ideal is transformed into the religious
transubstantiation of the finite world into an actual reconciliation with the infinite.

But the dialectic of the pseudonymous authorship never quite reaches the truly religious.
We stop short at the representation of the religious by a self-confessed humorist
(Johannes Climacus) in a medium which, according to Climacus's own account, necessarily
alienates the reader from true (Christian) faith. For faith is a matter of lived
experience, of constant striving within an individual's existence. According to Climacus's
metaphysics, the world is divided dualistically into the actual and the ideal. Language
(and all other media of representation) belong to the realm of the ideal. No matter how
eloquent or evocative language is it can never be the actual. Therefore, any
representation of faith is always suspended in the realm of ideality and can never be
actual faith.

So the whole dialectic of the pseudonymous authorship is recuperated by the aesthetic by
virtue of its medium of representation. In fact Johannes Climacus acknowledges this
implicitly when at the end of Concluding Unscientific Postscript he revokes everything he
has said, with the important rider that to say something then to revoke it is not the same
as never having said it in the first place. His presentation of religious faith in an
aesthetic medium at least provides an opportunity for his readers to make their own leap
of faith, by appropriating with inward passion the paradoxical religion of Christianity
into their own lives.

As a poet of the religious Kierkegaard was always preoccupied with aesthetics. In fact,
contrary to popular misconceptions of Kierkegaard which represent him as becoming
increasingly hostile to poetry, he referred increasingly to himself as a poet in his later
years (all but one of over ninety references to himself as a poet in his journals date
from after 1847). Kierkegaard never claimed to write with religious authority, as an
apostle. His works represent both less religiously enlightened and more religiously
enlightened positions than he thought he had attained in his own existence. Such
representations were only possible in an aesthetic medium of imagined possibilities like
poetry.

Kierkegaard's Ethics
Like the terms "aesthetic" and "religious", the term "ethics" in Kierkegaard's work has
more than one meaning. It is used to denote both: (i) a limited existential sphere, or
stage, which is superseded by the higher stage of the religious life; and (ii) an aspect
of life which is retained even within the religious life. In the first sense "ethics" is
synonymous with the Hegelian notion of Sittlichkeit, or customary mores. In this sense
"ethics" represents "the universal", or more accurately the prevailing social norms. The
social norms are seen to be the highest court of appeal for judging human affairs -
nothing outranks them for this sort of ethicist. Even human sacrifice is justified in
terms of how it serves the community, so that when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter
Iphigenia he is regarded as a tragic hero since the sacrifice is required for the success
of the Greek expedition to Troy (Fear and Trembling).

Kierkegaard, however, does recognize duties to a power higher than social norms. Much of
Fear and Trembling turns on the notion that Abraham's would-be sacrifice of his son Isaac
is not for the sake of social norms, but is the result of a "teleological suspension of
the ethical". That is, Abraham recognizes a duty to something higher than both his social
duty not to kill an innocent person and his personal commitment to his beloved son, viz.
his duty to obey God's commands.

But in order to arrive at a position of religious faith, which might entail a
"teleological suspension of the ethical", the individual must first embrace the ethical
(in the first sense). In order to raise oneself beyond the merely aesthetic life, which is
a life of drifting in imagination, possibility and sensation, one needs to make a
commitment. That is, the aesthete needs to choose the ethical, which entails a commitment
to communication and decision procedures.

The ethical position advocated by Judge Wilhelm in "Equilibrium Between the Aesthetic and
the Ethical in the Composition of Personality" (Either-Or II) is a peculiar mix of
cognitivism and noncognitivism. The metaethics or normative ethics are cognitivist, laying
down various necessary conditions for ethically correct action. These conditions include:
the necessity of choosing seriously and inwardly; commitment to the belief that
predications of good and evil of our actions have a truth-value; the necessity of choosing
what one is actually doing, rather than just responding to a situation; actions are to be
in accordance with rules; and these rules are universally applicable to moral agents.

The choice of metaethics, however, is noncognitive. There is no adequate proof of the
truth of metaethics. The choice of normative ethics is motivated, but in a noncognitive
way. The Judge seeks to motivate the choice of his normative ethics through the avoidance
of despair. Here despair (Fortvivlelse) is to let one's life depend on conditions outside
one's control (and later, more radically, despair is the very possibility of despair in
this first sense). For Judge Wilhelm, the choice of normative ethics is a noncognitive
choice of cognitivism, and thereby an acceptance of the applicability of the conceptual
distinction between good and evil.

From Kierkegaard's religious perspective, however, the conceptual distinction between good
and evil is ultimately dependent not on social norms but on God. Therefore it is possible,
as Johannes de Silentio argues was the case for Abraham (the father of faith), that God
demand a suspension of the ethical (in the sense of the socially prescribed norms). This
is still ethical in the second sense, since ultimately God's definition of the distinction
between good and evil outranks any human society's definition. The requirement of
communicability and clear decision procedures can also be suspended by God's fiat. This
renders cases such as Abraham's extremely problematic, since we have no recourse to public
reason to decide whether he is legitimately obeying God's command or whether he is a
deluded would-be murderer. Since public reason cannot decide the issue for us, we must
decide for ourselves as a matter of religious faith.

Kierkegaard's Religion
Kierkegaard styled himself above all as a religious poet. The religion to which he sought
Continues for 16 more pages >>