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March 2 2024 21:25 EST

A drawing by Niels Christian Kierkegaard, Thoemmes

Søren Kierkegaard



since 01.01.06

Introduction to Philosophy

Søren Kierkegaard, "Truth as Subjectivity"

Abstract: Søren Kierkegaard's life and works are briefly outlined with emphasis first on the dialectic of stages on life's way and second on truth as subjectivity.

  1. To a large extent, the works of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) are inseparable from his life. The central concern is his work is to expose what it means for an individual to exist.
    1. His works can be sorted into five main categories:
      1. Imaginative Fiction
        1. Either/Or
        2. Repetition
        3. Stages of Life's Way
      2. Conceptual or Ideational Works
        1. Concluding Unscientific Postscript
        2. Philosophical Fragments
        3. Concept of Dread
        4. Sickness Unto Death
      3. Devotional or Religious Works
        1. Edifying Discourses
        2. Purity of Heart
        3. Prayers
        4. Fear and Trembling
      4. Polemical Works
        1. Attack on Christendom
        2. The Present Age
      5. Personal Works
        1. Journals
        2. The Point of View for My Work as an Author
    2. Personal issues in his life are incorporated into his philosophy.
      1. His life was punctuated by a troubled devotion to his father.
      2. A engagement to Regina Olsen was broken for unclear reasons: did it involve his melancholy, was it a vocational decision (a martyrdom for humanity), perhaps affected by his physical abnormality, or perhaps even his lack of wealth?
      3. Other significant events include his graduate studies in seminary and his disputes with a tabloid periodical.
      4. Kierkegaard's life was spent "in service of the Idea" although he thought his works were "too polemical."
      5. His motto was "Periissen nisi periiisem" — "I had perished, had I not perished." Compare his motto to the idea that once one dies, there is nothing left to live up to.
      6. Other significant self-descriptors include, "Alas I was never young," "What I am to do or be, not what I am to know."
      7. His resolution was to become a Christian writer in Christendom—a resolution leading to the "question of questions": "How can I become a Christian?" This question has two enemies according to Kierkegaard: the Hegelian philosophy and the practices of the unreflective churchgoer.
      8. Kierkegaard wrote over the decade of the 1840's—the same period as the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, the positivism of Auguste Comte, the utilitarianism of J.S. Mill, and Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
  2. The Dialectic of the Stages (the stages on life's way, the levels of existence, or points of view) is the process whereby the spirit is actualized in the form of individuality. The transition from one stage to another is accomplished by an act of will, a choice, or a "leap" of faith.
    1. Aesthetic or First Stage is a dimension of existence as an overall life-style of living by means of the immediate or sensual self-dispersal and impulsive action.
      1. The capacity of living in the moment without reflection is immediacy. The lack of reflection in decisions is similar here to the naivety of children. But this stage also includes speculative intellectualism.
        1. Hence the aesthetic stage is the style of the hedonist as well as the practice of the detached Hegelian rationalist who avoids life through his love of reflection.
        2. The presence of the enjoyment of desires exemplifies the lack of commitment to ideals.
        3. To avoid boredom, the rotation method of activities must be employed. This stage implies the right relation of forgetfulness and remembrance while drifting through arbitrary actions.
      2. In the aesthetic stage the individual is essentially uncommitted, detached, and an on-looker. The qualities of this stage include sensualism, aestheticism, and speculativism.
      3. Examples of the aesthetic stage include ...
        1. Kierkegaard's anonymous dilettante "A" who lives for pleasure but realizes later that no life can be lived on impulse alone.
        2. The musical analogue of this state is Mozart's "Don Juan" with the music's "passion for immediacy."
        3. Other examples include the Hegelian rationalist, the hedonist, Jung's sensation type and introverted thinking type, as well as the child in the pleasure and pain of the moment.
      4. Difficulties with the aesthetic stage include the internal contradiction between, first, impulse and planning and, second, spontaneity and planning for future possibilities.
        1. Although the aesthetic stage is like playing a game successfully, one cannot derive existence out of that game. The thinker seeks values in what he knows, and the hedonist seeks value in what is sensed. Kierkegaard's neurosis of "what I am to do or be" arises.
        2. Boredom results—self-awareness is lacking in the presence of pure immediacy. The absence of the mediation of self-reflection results in boredom not only with the activity but also boredom with self.
        3. Finally, despair results as the recognition of complete self-dispersal—what Kierkegaard terms "the death instinct," "the sickness unto death," or the unwillingness to be oneself.
    2. Ethical or Second Stage arises as one accepts ethical principles and the consequent obligations by means of reason and so achieves a sense of authenticity, duty, and commitment.
      1. This stage arises from the "Either/Or" of a forced choice between practical alternatives (I.e., not the Hegelian synthesis of a "Both/And." The choice involves a necessary loss.
      2. After the first stage, a sense of "infinite resignation" leads to a sense of "eternal validity" achievable by resolute decision and commitment to duty.
      3. Consider the sentiment in Alfred Lord "Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade":

        ‘Forward the Light Brigade!’
        ‘Forward the Light Brigade!’
        Was there a man dismay'd?
        Not tho' the soldier knew
        Some one had blunder'd:
        Theirs not to make reply,
        Theirs not to reason why,
        Theirs but to do and die,
        Into the valley of Death
        Rode the six hundred.
    3. Examples of the ethical stage include both Dostoevsky's metaphor of the Crystal Palace as well as the example of the Lafitte connoisseur his Notes From Underground.
      1. Other examples include the Stoic's emphasis on what is in one's control, and the sacrifice of the Australians and the New Zealanders in the Battle of Gallipoli in WW II. As a psychological example fo the ethical stage of existence, Jung's introverted feeling type is capable of fantastic self-sacrifice.
      2. Kierkegaard mentions the state of marriage, the tragic hero expressing the universal action, the invocation of the golden rule, as well as the Philistine who pretends he is devoted to narrow and practical aims.
      3. Finally, of course, Kant's use of the categorical imperative as well as Socrates' seeking universal definitions in his quest for knowledge reflects this stage of existence.
    4. Difficulties with the ethical stage arise in several in several different ways.
      1. Inability to obey the rules or laws and consciousness of sin lead to the inability to be consistently oneself.
      2. Conflicts of duties arise within the application of codes of behavior.
      3. The concrete individual cannot be caught in the net of a system; moral laws are like the abstract formulas of science.
      4. The problem is that objectivity of ethics implies the individual as an observer who lives his life as history or natural science. Life can become pointlessly a "going through the motions"

        "Lament" by Edna St. Vincent Millay expresses the emptiness of the ethical stage:

        Life must go on,
        And the dead be forgotten;
        Life must go on,
        Though good men die;
        Anne, eat your breakfast;
        Dan, take your medicine;
        Life must go on;
        I forget just why.
    5. Religious or Third Stage results from a "leap" or commitment of faith, a risk taken—one not resolvable through reason or sensation.
      1. Kierkegaard states there is no higher standpoint in life than in faith; this sense of presence can only be reached by an often remade leap.
      2. Absurdity is the expression of the passion of faith; e.g., consider Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as analyzed in Kierkegaard's work Fear and Trembling.
      3. What is at stake in Christianity is not the ordinary moral code nor mere socialization from following the values of the crowd.
      4. Philosophical Fragments concludes, "We have assume a new organ: Faith; a new presupposition: the consciousness of Sin; a new decision: the Moment; and a new Teacher: God in Time."
      5. Examples of the religious stage include the following.
        1. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard speaks of Religion "B," the transcendent religion, not the passive religion of the unreflective churchgoer. Christ is seen as the ultimate paradox and only known subjectively.
        2. Jung's intuitive type as the kind of person who becomes aware of truth via the unconscious could be considered the psychological example.
        3. The teleological suspension of the ethical is implicit. The disengagement with the ethical or universal is made in "fear and trembling." Concrete examples here could include Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Nietzsche's overman. The idea here is that the value of the individual is higher than the universal. (Often, for one not in the religious stage of existence, the invocation of a universal rule saves us from having to choose.)
    6. Comments on the Stages on Life's Way:
      1. The concept of dread or despair precedes the act of will or a leap of choice from one stage of existence to another which Kierkegaard describes as a "sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy."
      2. Kierkegaard at times considered both the ethical and the religions stages together, describing it as the religio-ethical. The notion of the teleological suspension of the ethical, however, implies an essential distinction between the two stages of life.
  3. Truth as subjectivity (and reality) is his definition of "faith".
    1. Kierkegaard's definition of "truth": "An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for the individual."
      1. It is not so much as what is believed as it is how it is believed. Truth is an idea paradoxical for finite reason, requiring both a risk and a "leap of faith."
      2. Truth comes about through the teleological suspension of the ethical. I.e., ethical codes do not embody the truth of religious faith. Ethical obligations are sometimes superseded by truths of subjective existence.
      3. The difference between objective (or Socratic) truth and subjective truth is the appropriation process of making the paradox one's own. Thinking about it doesn't get in the way of arrogation.
      4. Kierkegaard's "paradox" is a precursor of the notion of the "absurd" in later existential thought.
      5. Three main characteristics of subjective truth include that it is paradoxical, concrete, and not universal.
    2. Kierkegaard's passionate inwardness is not equivalent to just an emotional state; it is the involvement of the whole of one's person, a commitment or dedication as a matter of consciousness in thought.
    3. Examples of truth as paradox (or subjective truth) include God, Christ (the God-man), immortality, and death. Christ is the "Absolute Paradox."
    4. Eternal truth is not, Kierkegaard says, itself paradoxical but instead is only paradoxical in relation to us.
  4. Kierkegaard's philosophy is intensely personal. He believes the significant problems of life are not solved by some kind of "absolute standpoint," but only realized through an act of will or choice. Human existence cannot be reduced to objective reflection.
    1. Existence, for Kierkegaard, is obtained when the individual realizes himself through the choice between alternatives and subsequent self-commitment. In this choice, there are no objective standards to measure up to.
    2. An existential system is impossible to construct since truth is a question of appropriation rather than approximation. A system, unlike a human being, requires completion and finality. Human existence is an unfinished process where an individual takes responsibility for his choices.
    3. Kierkegaard endorsed Socrates' conflating intellectual with moral mistakes.
    4. The individual and the crowd: one becomes more of an individual through conscious choices, and one becomes less of an individual through following the crowd.
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“Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 182.

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