Kierkegaard and the Existential Self

A little while ago I wrote a post attempting to provide a cursory explanation of Kierkegaard’s (or rather, Anti-Climacus’, as the pseudonymous author of The Sickness Unto Death) existential dialectic of the “Self.”  I also posted a home-made (and admittedly useless) diagram trying to explicate the dimensions of the Self as synthesis (available here).

I’m rarely, if ever, pleased with anything I write. That being said, I felt the above post with respect to my attempt at explaining Kierkegaard’s existential-dialectic of the Self was fundamentally inadequate, and desperately in need of a revision. So, because I’ve got a break between classes, I thought I would take the time to try and write a more thorough and clear explanation/interpretation of what is arguably one of my all time favorite components of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works.

But before I get into the actual subject matter, I’d like to talk a little about the work itself. The Sickness Unto Death was published amid Kierkegaard’s “Second Authorship,” which generally encompasses the period between 1848 and 1851. During the Second Authorship, Kierkegaard’s works were either written under his own name, or, if written pseudonymously, then he identified himself as the editor (as is the case in The Sickness Unto Death). The use of pseudonyms in the Second Authorship, however, is to serve an entirely different purpose than the previous use of pseudonyms in the period of “Indirect Communication” (1843-46). During Kierkegaard’s “Second Authorship,” the authorial strategy of ascribing authorship to a pseudonym served the explicit purpose of communicating modesty. Whereas the first period of pseudonyms were an attempt to mask the real authorship or fit a particular writing within a different context or paradigm which Kierkegaard never intended to be taken as his own, the second phase of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship was his own admission that he had yet attained Christianity. Thus the significance of Anti-Climacus (which should appear as an obvious reference to Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of The Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus). The play on words here is seemingly significant. The Anti-“ in Anti-Climacus is not meant to imply that the author is “against” (Johannes) Climacus; but rather,  as a variation of the Latin prefix ante– meaning “before,” or “preceding,” (also “taking precedence”). Thus, Anti-Climacus  is supposedly “higher” than the ironist Johannes Climacus, who himself concedes that he had not attained Christianity.

Defining the Self

In explicating Anti-Climacus’ dialectic of the Self, a word of caution may be in order with respect to the specific terminology utilized in the discussion.  Clearly Kierkegaard’s writing must be situated within its proper historical context; and insofar as he is the inheritor of two dominant traditions shaping his thinking (Christianity and Western philosophy as mediated through German Idealism), he employs numerous terms that, if taken by themselves, give the impression that Kierkegaard is undertaking what would otherwise appear to be a metaphysical or ontological task. However, such reading is problematic. Fist, it ignores the patently obvious and undeniable fact that much of Kierkegaard’s thought is directed at explicitly countering such metaphysical projects that dominated Danish thinking at the time – and of course this most famously implicates Hegelianism. Second, while there is definitely some evidence to suggest that Kierkegaard’s hostility to system-building may indeed discourage an attempt to read his voluminous works as constituting a unified “corpus” of his thought, I think any attempt to understand the part without reference to the whole misses something unique and significant in Kierkegaardian thinking. Third, while Anti-Climacus’ authorial style is much more severe, more serious, and less openly playful/poetic than some of the other pseudonyms, I think any interpretation that does not keep in mind the play of irony in Kierkegaard’s work misses  something essential (for lack of a better word).

Despite the inclusion of seemingly metaphysical/ontological terminology, including key words such as Spirit, Self, and synthesis – I don’t take Kierkegaard (Anti-Climacus) to be attempting to re-orient this thinking into reproducing an alternative ontology of the self. In all of Kierkegaard’s authorship, including the pseudonyms, never once is the task set about to describe the ontological structures of human being-as-such.  For my part, I’ve always seen Kierkegaard’s thought as first and foremost issuing from a stance of de-essentializing philosophy, and thus, the interpretation of the Self as offered in The Sickness Unto Death ought not to be understood in the discourse of onto-metaphysical categories. Kierkegaard doesn’t attempt to provide of system, but rather, is attempting to describe the phenomena of the common underlying background against which existence is understood at all. If anything, Kierkegaard sets out to delimit metaphysics, which is best understood when one recalls the historic-philosophical context in which Kierkegaard’s corpus takes shape – chiefly, amid the backdrop of the totalizing claims of Hegelianism. On this point, John Caputo has offered a very persuasive argument for Kierkegaard as a proto-deconstructionist thinker, for which he analyzes Kierkegaard alongside Derrida as participating in joint-venture in the destruction of metaphysics-as-presence.

The Sickness unto Death is organized principally around Anti-Climacus’ exposition of the “sickness of the soul,” which he identifies as Despair. But before he can articulate the problematic of “despair,” Anti-Climacus must relay to us what is a “self.” The initial formulation is given thusly:

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but the relation’s relating itself to itself.” (The Sickness unto Death, p. 13).

Note: Anti-Climacus uses the word Self (Selv) to refer to both the totality of the entire synthesis that comprises the individual as well as the teleological task of synthesizing Spirit (becoming a Self).

The constitutive parts of the “relation that relates itself to itself”:

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.

Up to this point, we now know that a self is not the relation itself; as in the extant relationship between   “A” and “B.” A synthesis always involves three constitutive parts – the two parts by which the initial (primary) relation exists; and the “third,” the relation itself. Kierkegaard has in mind here, however, no mere passive relation, for the Self is the relation that relates itself to itself; thus, the simple synthesis as constituted in the “negative” third of a mere passive or “objective” relation is still not a self.  Of course, one cannot help but take note of the Hegelian terminology here; and therefore, the “negative unity” by which Anti-Climacus can refer is not the dynamic self-relation of the self, but a static synthesis of the elements, lacking the “movement” by which the self is a process – and not a thing.

This point – which in the relatively obtuse language of the above-quoted passage may be difficult to ascertain at first, is critical, for Anti-Climacus goes on to tell us that the relation that relates itself to itself is positive – in other words, it is personal to the Self; actively taken up as “mattering,” the relationship is not passive nor merely reflective, as in the relationship between the relationship between two geometric points on a line. Rather, the relation matters to the self and the self must actively synthesize its own self between the two from which the relationship is constituted. This “positive” third is also called Spirit. But “Spirit” (Aand) is in no way, shape, or form meant in the same vein as Hegel’s Geist; for Kierkegaard (Anti-Climacus), the life of Spirit is passionate commitment; that unsettling “call” to the openness of the eternal flux as the condition for existence.

This also raises the point of how Anti-Climacus differentiates a human being (the relation between the two); and a self (the relation that relates itself).  A human being who fails to synthesize the relation between the polarities of the temporal and the finite, and thus is stuck in immediacy, is properly said to be without Spirit; and to be without Spirit is to be without a Self. Thus, I do not take Anti-Climacus to indicate that the Self is constituted in the polarities within the relation; but rather, is the process of synthesizing each level of polarity in a teleological manner towards the eternal relation (that which grounds the relation to God). In this sense, the Self is constantly in motion – is never “fixed,” nor can it be delimited within the confines of any onto-theological or categorical definition. Caputo again is spot on, in my opinion, when he posits that Kierkegaard’s existential dialectic of the Self is NOT an attempt to arrest the flux; but on the contrary, is an attempt to understand existence in light of the flux.

As for what is constituted in the relationship, Anti-Climacus tells us that the self is the synthesis [that relates itself to itself] of the infinite and the finite; the temporal and the eternal; and freedom and necessity. In other words, the relation between the material and the spiritual; the organic and the transcendent; facticity and fluctuation.  But the language used to describe this relation between the two constitutive realms of human being takes place specifically within the framework of dialectic, and not a combination. Thus, the Self can always find itself in a sort of “dialectical tension” (which is called Despair).  When such tension arises, the self, for whatever reason, has fallen into disproportion or disequilibrium; a failing-to-be-oneself. Ultimately, this disproportion in the relation, or this failure to be oneself, is identified by Anti-Climacus as the “sickness unto death.”  Anti-Climacus appropriates the phrase “sickness unto death” from John 11:14, where Christ, before reviving Lazarus, stated that Lazarus’ sickness “was not unto death.”  The sickness unto death is not necessarily itself fatal; but rather, is a type of sickness that causes eternal misery, and accordingly is a sickness of the spirit.  The existential despair for which Anti-Climacus speaks is thus always already understood within the context of becoming a Christian; namely, that what Christians fear most is not mortality (as say Pagans or a-theists), but rather, the broader ramifications of immortality. Specifically, despair has the structure of an eternal sickness that does not end alongside the temporal finitude of the physical human being.

Anti-Climacus has taken a bold first-step in calling into question the traditional assumptions and predispositions of the Western metaphysical tradition. It must be recalled that Kierkegaard and his pseudonymous authors are taking a radical and critical stance against the dominant substance-ontology of the day, although admittedly not as radical as what Heidegger would accomplish roughly 80 years later in Being and Time (1927). Nevertheless, the implications of Kierkegaard’s calling into question the tradition’s emphasis on metaphysics as presence, actuality, as the be-all and end-all of ontological investigation. For Kierkegaard, it is not enough to try to explain the “what” without first taking stock of the “who” I am, which can only be done by first acknowledging that there is always a self that is existentially engaged in the world. Moreover, over-emphasis and preoccupation with the “what-ness” has a tendency to conceal more than it reveals; and thus, does more to distract us from the primary task of existing-in-the-world.  For Anti-Climacus (and presumably Kierkegaard), existence means then that I am more than mere presence, actuality, res cogitans; the existing individual is irreducible to mere present-at-hand (to borrow Heidegger’s terminology) objects – for we are essentially “involved” in our very existence. Thus, to attempt to delimit human being without taking into consideration the existing self is to gloss over what is most fundamentally at work in existence as such. And for Kierkegaard, to exist, to be a self, is a self-referential structure. Thus, the self is never a “thing,” something that we each can investigate from the detached or “objective” position of the metaphysician.   Every self, in order to be a self, takes a stand on itself, is concerned with its own self-relation and is thus passionately pre-disposed to its own self.  It is through the process of becoming a self, always in motion, that Anti-Climacus has stipulated the commonalities by which human being can understand itself as existence.

This relation that relates itself to itself does not exist in a vacuum; for it is not self-sufficient or self-contained; but rather, is itself dependent as that which has been “established by another.” It is my understanding that, given Anti-Climacus’ rigorously and un-ironic standpoint as someone who has seemingly attained the Christian ideal (as opposed to Kierkegaard himself); I can’t see how this “established by another” cannot refer to God himself. Hubert Dreyfus, in his illuminating lectures on The Sickness unto Death, stipulates that the “another” is not God – but rather the “other” by which the self affirms itself through its passionate commitment to the world, that is — whatever it may be that is my own concrete, passionate engagement that defines my own existence. While I think there is some merit to this point – I have a hard-time reconciling this point of view with respect to the position of the author himself (in this case, the pseudonymous Anti-Climacus). Likewise, it would seem that it is by virtue of God’s involvement in the establishment of the self that sustains the responsibility of caring for the self, especially with respect to the later discussion regarding despair. For it is only through faith that the self can get itself out of despair, which, at least in my view, means that one cannot read God out of the very structure of the self. While I can appreciate the attempt to provide this secularized reading, I think such readings neglect to take seriously Kierkegaard’s use of Anti-Climacus as the author, and not himself, who is merely on the path to becoming a Christian, but for whom that goal has yet to be accomplished. Moreover, I agree with John Caputo who says that if the self were autonomous, and not established by virtue of God, then despair itself would consist in simply failing to be oneself – and thus Anti-Climacus would have given us only despair in weakness. But this isn’t the case– for we also have despair in defiance, where the self wills to be itself but fails to relate itself properly before God.  Only at this stage does the self become God-related (as opposed to the pre-reflective stage of the aesthetic and the reflective stage of the ethical).

The relation’s relating itself reflectively to God should not be taken as implying a causal relation. Instead, what I take Anti-Climacus to mean by this is that the relational self is a constellation of relations which relate to God as the primordial ground of the Self, which in turn actively relates itself in time in space.

Unfortunately, I think too many non-religious readers of Kierkegaard are instantly turned-off by the heavy religious baggage that Anti-Climacus employs. However, I think there is still something of import here even for a secular interpretation. For, even if despair does end with death, if we take seriously Anti-Climacus’ structure of the self, it means we are always already ensured to suffer the pains of despair while alive unless we balance our self to something other than ourselves in the world. This is where Dreyfus’ interpretation of the relation’s grounded in the other can take up a secular or non-religious meaning. Namely, the relation can be grounded not in God, but a particular project or passionate commitment.

And so it stands that becoming a self is a process of self-constitution; yet, a process which has no telos, and which is never complete, never fixed, and cannot be understood as mere presence.

Becoming a Self through the Stages on Life’s Way

Anti-Climacus’ relational definition of the Self can also be understood within the framework of Kierkegaard’s three stages on life’s way (the three stages of individual existence): aesthetic, ethical, and religious. The human being, not yet a self, in which Spirit is non-existent or plays only a trivial role, is a mere relation; he consists in only the relating of the temporal and eternal; and thus he is only able to relate to the temporal and/or eternal immediately. But such a person can enter the ethical stage of self-reflection, upon which the immediate self is confronted with the reflective self. This, in turn, give rise to the religious and enables the person to become a self by relating-itself to God “as the other.” The “other” can be related to as imminent, as in religiousness A, or as transcendent, religiousness B.

Yet throughout this the concept of “despair” is always at play – for whenever the self is in a mis-relation, then it lives in despair.  The aesthete is the furthest from self-becoming, for he lives solely on impulse, a constant pre-occupation with presence. Thus, the aesthete lacks an authentic relation to the temporal insofar as he either finds himself always in search of the immediate pleasure of the moment (hedonism) – of which the end result will always be a finding oneself bored and/or melancholy; or abstract intellectualism. Nevertheless, the aesthetic stage consists of the individual’s attempt to find himself outside himself – an endeavor ultimately plagued in futility. As such – the aesthete is unconscious of his despair; and despite his restless efforts to attain new satisfaction, has no relation to genuine “movement,” and thus for him, nothing is new. Only by making a movement towards passionate commitment and freedom though, is the individual able to move on to the ethical stage of life.

In order to advance to the ethical, the individual must choose despair; only then does the process begin by which the self begins the process of self-becoming by moving away from the abstraction of self so evident in the aesthetic stage. What is most fundamental with respect to the ethical is that it makes a movement beyond the aesthete’s pre-occupation with the here and now. Instead, the ethical begins with the universal and subsequently actualizes itself along the way.  At the ethical, the individual begins to recognize himself through possibility. With regards to the individual’s relation to temporality, the ethical person is conscious of the present with regards to the consequences of the future. Thus, the ethical person has lost the moment; and whereas the aesthetic acts on inclination, the ethical person is bound by the ideology of the required, and thus has overcome the strict commands of pure desire.

But if the ethical person chooses despair, he then is capable of transfiguring the ethical (just as the ethical transfigured the aesthetic), and moves into the religious stage. The religious stage, as developed in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is divided into two distinct levels of existence – religious A and religious B. Religious A lives in the eternal moment, and not the temporal; and thus, represents a sort of “transitional” half-way stage between the ethical and religious B. Only upon entering into the transcendental religious stage B can the individual fully become himself, and thus only then can the individual take as the final dimension of existence all three modes of existence, by which the existing individual self of Religious B can be said to “exist” at all three levels simultaneously.  Only the Knight of Faith (religious B) is a fully existing individual self who relates himself to himself and thus relates himself to God.  Faith, then, is the transcendence of despair in which the self, in its relating to itself is willing to be itself, and thus rests transparently in God.

“Faith is: that the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God.” (Sickness Unto Death, 82).

In the next post, I will examine Kierkegaard’s existential-dialectic of the self through the existential possibility of despair.


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