In 1842/43, Kierkegaard began one of his most philosophically intriguing works – Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Ext. Though it was never completed in his short lifetime, the text itself is one of Kierkegaard’s most complex engagements with the Western philosophical tradition. The work describes itself as a ‘narrative’ – the designation of which is intended to reflect how the work differs substantially from the modern techniques of philosophical discourse. Kierkegaard’s choice of the narrative form is utilized in order to demonstrate that a life-view founded on doubt must inevitably end in despair, and thus brings into question not only the methodological doubt of Descartes as the “starting point of philosophy,” but also the drive towards systematic completion of speculative thought generally. The “task” of Johannes Climacus then is to counter modern philosophy’s chosen starting point of doubt, and bring us back to existence.
For Johannes Climacus, “doubt” refers to a kind of indeterminate, intermediary “zone,” between determinate actuality and the absolute freedom of abstraction. In doubt, the self experiences a kind of continuous oscillation between existence and non-existence (abstraction); and thus, doubt has a resistance-quality to it; a fluidity, so to speak, that departs from actuality only to inevitably return us to existence, albeit with a new set of qualifications.
Cartesian doubt, as a product of reason, attempts to take us away from engagement in existence. However, Kierkegaard notes that, for the Ancient Greek skeptics, doubt was the product of perception or interest, and thus doubt could be canceled by transforming interest (inter esse, “being-between”) into apathy, whereas apathy itself is constituted as dis-engagement (apatheia). The Cartesian stepping-away from engagement, we disclose dis-interest and dis-engagement, which in fact dissolves doubt.
Whereas dread returns the self from sensuousness to actuality, doubt performs a similar movement within the other sphere of non-existence in the aesthetic stage on life’s way. All self-becoming involves the drawing-into actuality of the two spheres of non-existence (sensuousness and abstraction), while at the same time resisting the temptation to lose-itself, and thus depart actuality, by emptying itself out into either sphere. Here, however, it must be recalled that Kierkegaard has in mind a very different point of view with respect to “actuality” than the metaphysical tradition. In The Sickness Unto Death, the pseudonymous author Anti-Climacus unraveled the traditional notion of actuality and substituted in its place a new synthetic definition of actuality as the synthesis of necessity and possibility.
Johannes Climacus serves as the paradigmatic case of what can be called “Kierkegaardian doubt.” But this peculiar “existential doubt” takes the opposite route than the more familiar Cartesian doubt. For Descartes, doubt is the starting point, which is taken into the sphere of thought itself and thenceforth infinitized. This form of doubt, which may be called reflective doubt, is the starting point of all modern philosophy since Descartes, and stipulates that all must be doubted except the existence of the thinker himself. Doubt, as understood within the strictures of the Cartesian tradition, is a product of reason, and thus does not undermine thought itself, but rather, it propels the thinker into the far-flung abyss of systematic reflection, pure thought, and mediation.
Climacus’ doubt is not a methodological doubt; he does not doubt the truth or reality of his perceptions; his is no epistemological doubt. On the contrary, his doubt is that of trepidation. For Johannes Climacus, who is a lover of the freedom of abstraction, pure and ideal thought, it is his becoming aware of the incommensurability of thought itself to the messy and unsystematic nature of actuality itself that grounds his doubt. While Johannes longs to become part of his beloved and infinite abstract thought, the same longing that plagues all of modern philosophy, it is doubt that reminds him of his non-ideal existence; of existence as such.
It’s at this juncture that the essential difference between Cartesian methodological doubt and Kierkegaardian existential doubt makes itself felt. Whereas the former is a disinterested and abstract relation within thought itself, the latter is always already interested, and therefore, brings the thinker back from abstraction into existence. Thus, in doubt’s interplay between actuality and ideality (existence and non-existence), existential doubt is a mixed, never wholly contained within any given sphere, or relation.
Upon thinking the difference between Cartesian doubt and existential doubt, Johannes begins to question how doubt is possible in the first place. He invariably comes to understand doubt as that which provides the means for grounding thought in existence – in stark contrast to the metaphysician, for whom doubt is the means by which thought escapes existence. In virtue of his doubting, Climacus is brought more closely into existence, but he also brings his thoughts with him – while at the same time transforming his own relation to actuality. Thus, the artificial “gulf” between the existing thinker and his thought-world, the product of Cartesian metaphysics, is bridged by virtue of existential doubt, which eradicates this paradoxically fundamental, but also derivative, dichotomy responsible for this difference. For Johannes, his doubt is not disinterested speculative thinking; but on the contrary, it is always interested.
Thus, it is easy to see the inter-relationship between Cartesian-reflective doubt and the misconstrued conceptions of the individual indelibly tied to modern thinking. To begin with, the uniquely modern conception of the individual contributes to a false conception of the universal or the objective as an inaccessible realm of abstraction for which, save for thought itself, the individual was cut-off. Under these circumstances, Cartesian doubt has the tendency to eliminate the particular and thus de-situate the thinker from his own concrete situated-ness. Thus, the Cartesian thinker is always a thinker who thinks from “nowhere.” Existential doubt, according to Johanness, takes as its starting point the project of abstract thinking, pure thought, and returns us to situated-ness, to the particularity of the individual thinker for whom doubt is always already interested.
Working in combination, it may be said that reflective (Cartesian) doubt elevates the individual – moving him up into the ethereal domain of pure thought itself, while, existential doubt drags him back to his own existence, for whom he is always concerned, and which he may never rid-himself of, no matter how hard he tries.
Picking up where Immanuel Kant left off, Arthur Schopenhauer believed that all phenomena is representation (or idea, depending on your translation), beyond which lies the “Will to Life,” constituting the un-knowable, but nevertheless inferable, “thing-in-itself.” Thus, for Schopenhauer, all reality is Will. The objects, entities, and even ourselves that we perceive in the phenomenal world are thus nothing more than the objective expression of will.
What does Schopenhauer say about the Will to Life? To begin with, it is not Kant’s “free will,” but rather may be analogized to a universal energy force, perpetuating itself indefinitely through its objective expressions in the phenomenal world. It is blind and indifferent, and exists outside the parameters of space and time, and thus is the universal underlying reality of all existence.
Will for Schopenhauer is never our “individual will,” but rather the other way around: we are nothing but empty vessels by which Will works through us. Accordingly, the Will to Life is entirely indifferent to our existence, our needs, and our desires. We are both objects of the will (body) and subjects (mind). We experience our individuation only in the world of phenomena. But underneath we are all mere cogs in the endless cycle of Will. Thus, for Schopenhauer, when we die, it is only our phenomenal individuation and personality that ceases to be; but the Will, as thing itself and constitutive source of our being, continues on indefinitely.
We have the ability to infer our relationship to Will by reflecting on the way in which we, as conscious subjects, become aware of ourselves through our own willing. By reflecting on the essential force that motivates all human behavior and activity, we come to have an understanding (in the non-technical sense of that word) of our fundamental relationship to the Will to Life. For its part, the Will to Life is the source of all desire and motivation, and in this sense, is responsible for the ubiquitous human suffering in the world. Thus, all desiring is illogical, purposeless, and ultimately doomed to disappointment. Schopenhauer’s notorious pessimism is accordingly inextricably linked to his metaphysics, and thus making him the premier metaphysical pessimist.
But even for the deeply pessimistic Schopenhauer, we are afforded two options to escape the endless vanity of existence perpetuated by the Will to Life: first, in aesthetic experience; and secondly, through aestheticism.
For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience offers a temporary reprieve from our tedious and pointless existence. When we partake in aesthetic experience, we essentially suspend our wills, and become will-less subjects of knowledge. When we undergo an aesthetic experience, we escape the perceptual world of representation, and thus escape time, space, and causality. In this sense, we break free from the phenomenal world of space, time, and causality and instead become immersed with the abstract form in a state of contemplation. Accordingly, we no longer perceive ourselves as individuals suffering in the world due to Will; but rather, “pure, will-less, timeless” “subjects of cognition.”
Music, for Schopenhauer, offers the highest type of aesthetic release from the Will. This is possible because music itself is the most pure form of art, depicting the Will to Life itself, rather than representation of given objects of perception.
But it is impossible for the individual to completely suspend himself indefinitely in contemplative aesthetic experience. At some point or another, he must resort back to the banality and misery of his willing existence. In order to truly break free from the Will, Schopenhauer proposes that we must completely deny the Will itself in a complete renunciation of willing and desiring. Thus, only a total and complete asceticism can relieve us from the miserable wretchedness of the plight of existence.
Schopenhauer saw himself as a firm student in the Kantian tradition of Transcendental Idealism; but at the same time went beyond Kant and, in many respects, explained and condensed Kant’s own philosophy better than Kant did. He had a profound impact on later German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose early works, particularly The Birth of Tragedy express an overt indebtedness to Arthur Schopenhauer. And although Nietzsche later abandoned his explicit Schopenhauerian roots, Nietzsche never fully escaped the latter’s influence, even if it became a negative influence.
Schopenhauer is also renowned for being the first major Western thinker to take an active interest in Eastern Philosophy. During his youth, but after arriving at his own philosophical conclusions independently, Schopenhauer was introduced to both Buddhist and Hindu thought. He saw within these traditions a peculiar affinity with his own philosophy of the world.
Schopenhauer, who was a contemporary of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, also foreshadowed many themes and topics which would later be picked up by Kierkegaard’s existentialist descendants, including his concern with boredom, freedom, choice and responsibility, and questioning our notions of historical progress.
The doctrine of the “eternal recurrence of the same” (also known as eternal return of the same) remains one of the most peculiar and enigmatic features of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Indeed, commentators and Nietzsche scholars have published dozens of books, articles, and essays speculating as to how seriously Nietzsche took the doctrine to be a literal metaphysical understanding of reality, as well as how it fits into the broader scheme of Nietzsche’s body of work, particularly in relation to the Ubermensche and the Will to Power.Among the more popular, and somewhat banal, interpretations of eternal recurrence is that of an existential thought experiment. One is supposed to imagine that he or she will repeat this life exactly as it is over and over again — with all its pain, sorrows, tragedies, and disappointment. The point of eternal return as thought experiment is to induce us to examine our lives and take control. If we’re doomed to repeat this life exactly as it was and will be forever, then we ought to take responsibility for living our life as an experimental aesthetic narrative. Presumably, only the Overman would be strong enough to affirm the continuous recycling of this life — for only he is capable of looking at life square in the face and proclaim, “yes!” This interpretation can be seen as an extremely important part of Nietzsche’s overall project of developing a philosophy that would both overcome the nihilism of the modern age AND at the same time bring about the affirmation, rather than denial, of this life. Under this view then, the doctrine of eternal recurrence represents Nietzsche’s ultimate break from his predecessor and “educator” Arthur Schopenhauer, despite the heavy influence the latter played on Nietzsche’s development and thought.
The doctrine of eternal recurrence may also be understood as a means of bringing into question our preconceived notions of progress, universality, and objectivity as byproducts of a linear conception of time. Modern man takes for granted that he understands (ontic) time as a linear progression of “nows” leading from past, to present, and future. Even contemplating time as cyclical casts a shadow of doubt over our unquestionable commitment to progress and objectivity. If time is cyclical, then the very notion of “progress” as we understand it becomes necessarily impossible. The very notion of progress assumes time as linear. Only if we see time as occurring as a “stream” from then-to-now, and from now-to-yonder can such evaluative change take place. Yet, if everything were to exist in complete transience only to begin again — the idea of permanent progress is untenable. What is perceived as an overcoming of the past (say, scientific or technological advancement) is only tentative and ephemeral: for if it is all to end and begin again, there can simply be no constancy. Without constancy then, the notion of overcoming and ascending beyond what was, along with the hope of transcending the now with the hope of an even better tomorrow, must be cast aside. So too would our belief in objectivity. Objectivity presumes something eternal; it deals not in substance but form — specifically, a form that exists beyond the realm of time and space. Something that is, in and of itself, existing eternally and thus always in a static state of being. Cyclical time renders the static state of being an impossibility, as well, for if everything that was is to come again, and the now for which I see myself as experiencing will again recur, the very grounding for the “objective” is stripped away. Cyclical time undermines being in favor of continuous becoming. The “is”, as we perceive it, is only an illusion; a derivative and mistaken experience for the perpetual “will be.” The “will be,” then, is always already what it “was,” and forever “will be”, all of which is confined to the sameness of the repetitive cycles of the ever-recurring. Even hypothesizing on the eternal recurrence raises important questions concerning that which we take for granted about what it means to “be” human. It provides grounds for questioning time as linear — and so too the correlative notions of progress and objectivity which derivative of such conceptualizations of linear time. It also forces us to question the metaphysical traditions pertaining to the constancy of the “self,” as well as the metaphysical dualism of “mind” (eternal) and “body” (temporal).