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Demythologizing Law, Pt. I

The question, “what is law?” is at first glance irreducibly simple. We encounter “law” everyday; it is all around us – manifesting itself in the average everyday activities of common everyday life. Sometimes, as in the case of the criminal law, our encounter with ‘law” can be particularly dramatic – even cathartic. Other times, encounters with law arise within such a trivial and mundane context hardly worth a second thought (for example, when we click the “I Agree” button on any number of “Standard Terms & Conditions” contract encountered in everyday life). Sometimes, we “know” we’re dealing with law because the situation itself is already understood as such (as when we file an application for incorporation with the Secretary of State). Other times, law’s omnipresence is less obvious, and more opaque. All of these circumstances represent a mere sample of the numerous encounters we have with “law,” or at least “law” as its understood in the application of a comprehensive modern Western legal system.

Yet, to ask the question “what is law?” is to move oneself outside of the average-everyday encounter with law, into an entirely new and fundamentally different domain altogether. Lawyers, legal scholars, and laypeople alike rarely have the occasion to deal with the messy problems of ontology and its accompanying metaphysical baggage.  What we’re getting at, however, is a metaphysical question; or rather, an ontological question caught up in the intricacies of a metaphysical tradition. Insofar as legal scholars and philosophers have thought the question “what is law?” it appears they have taken for granted the ontological significance of the question. So what do they (legal scholars) mean when they talk about law?

Take, for instance, the classic line from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience… The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.[1]

This brief line from Justice Holmes is a significant source of ontological richness. Without his ever having been conscious of the fact, Holmes keenly demonstrates an ontological pre-understanding with regards his admonition that the life of the law is experience, not logic.  In recognizing that law is “embodied” in the lived-world of experience, Holmes is striking at the heart of Langdellian legal science and its metaphysical framework. Langdell and his followers conceived of “law” as embodying a set of limited, yet identifiable, universal principles that were detectible (by the trained legal professionals and scholars) inductively through the examination of precedent. Without a doubt such a conception of the law takes shape amidst the background of a very definite (and certain) ontological framework. Holmes’ point above, however, is a direct contradiction of the very ontological premises upon which the entirety of the Langdellian project was based. The reader will have surely noticed Holmes’ use of the past participle “been,” (to be). This is the juncture at which we can begin to see that Holmes’ ontological vision of law begins to take shape.

In making sense of Holmes’ claim, we can begin to develop an understanding of the statement’s ontological significance. For something “to be” means for it to “exist.” To exist, Heidegger tells us, is (etymologically speaking) to “stand-out against.” In following the structure of Holmes’ claim then, the life of the law is that which has been borne of experience, and not logic. Put differently, law is the type of being for which its life is experience, not logic. This seemingly innocuous description of “law” packs a metaphysical punch. When we ask, “what is law?” with the emphasis on the copula verb “to be,” we could understand the question in any number of ways. In our common understanding (pre-ontological), “to be” is wholly functional; it connects a subject with a predicate, such as “the book is heavy.” In our “average-everyday” grammatical understanding, this is nothing more than the working-out of predication. However, Holmes is also making an irreducibly ontological claim. When Holmes says, “the life of the law…has been experience,” he’s saying “the law,” is the type of being for which its life is determinable as “experience.” The ontological operation at work here follows the general structure of our shared grammatical practices: a descriptive property is equipped as a description of an object (the law).

This average-everyday understanding of “being,” or “to be” immediately brings to mind what Heidegger calls the “ontological difference.” In Being and Time (1927), Heidegger makes the observation that “Being is essentially different from a being, from beings.” The “ontological difference” delimits the fundamental distinction between “Being” (das Sein in German) and “beings” (das Seiende).  It is only on account of the forgetfulness of Being that permeates the Western philosophical tradition that the distinction is effectively leveled; where ontology (the fundamental question of the meaning of Being) has been lost and forgotten in our circumspective concern for things, entities, beings. Thus, it is with Heidegger’s insight into the ontological difference that we must now re-ask our question: what is law? By forgetting the question of Being as such, and instead preoccupying ourselves with the question of beings – we have altogether left out the most fundamental, most primordial of all: Be-ing. If Heidegger’s lifelong ambition was to get us to think Being again, then ours is an infinitely humbler task: for we want to examine the ways in which this forgetfulness of Being has made itself manifest in our understanding of “what is law?”

In taking the ontological question seriously, we begin to see the limitations of our average-ordinary way of understanding “Being.” The underlying significance at play here is two-fold: first, it shows that the traditional responses proffered to our question “what is law?” are inadequate if they do not think through the difference between Being and beings; second, it forces us to second-guess the standard framework that serves as the basic grounding of our entire metaphysical preconception of how we understand we who ask the question– that is, the problem of subjectivism, whereby we mean the metaphysical tradition’s positing of the relation between subjects (perceivers) and objects (entities encountered in the world). In other words, in posing the question, we are immediately brought into confrontation with our own presuppositions as to how we relate to, and describe, the phenomena of existence – including “law.”

What the canon of legal theory has taken for granted is the problem of the binary opposition of subject/object, the inherited tradition of the cogito.[2]  It is from this inherited tradition that modern legal theory has taken upon itself to describe the phenomena of law as an object to be perceived, observed, described, and explained.  It is against this backdrop of the tradition that our inquiry makes its first point of departure by way of problematizing any attempt at “objective” accounts of what law in fact is.

Throughout Western scholarship, there is a presumption towards the primacy of “objective” (versus subjective or otherwise non-objective) knowledge. This inherited privileging of the “objective” brings with it a number of important consequences, least of all its subsequent ontological dimensions. In the context of legal philosophy (and philosophy generally), this “objectifying” way of philosophizing manifests itself in the way in which legal scholars and philosophers attempt to take up a detached, disinterested, or theoretical point of view in describing the phenomena of “law.” It is as if the observer were capable of removing himself from his or her factical world, relieving him or herself from the complex of circumspective concerns of average-everyday being-in-the-world, and offering up what Thomas Nagel called “the view from nowhere.” [3] This preferential treatment of the objective account of the phenomena of law is supposed to relieve the neutral observer from the biases and prejudices of contingent human existence; in effect, it is an attempt to escape from the “hermeneutic circle” whereby understanding is always already interested and engaged.

To be sure, the “objective” account of law has necessarily transformed itself from the days of Langdell’s rigorous scientific formalism. The reader would be hard-pressed to find many legal philosophers and professional practitioners nowadays holding fast to the idea that law is an embodiment of universal “rules” that are both discoverable and discernible to the trained legal mind. But the objectification of law need not necessarily imply some faith in any sort of metaphysical “realism” of the legal concepts[4]; rather, objectivity in the post-Langdellian sense has taken its cue from positivism and empiricism, whereby legal concepts are indelibly part of the world of experience, conditioned and manufactured by the complex working out of social organization and practices that invariably constitute what we readily take to be “law.” In this respect, the primacy of objectivity can be defined as resting on a (pseudo)grounding in what may be called a “metaphysics of presence.”

In its metaphysical sense, the objectivity of law is grounded in presence; or rather, representation.[5] That is, the meaning and source of law is conceptually prefigured, something re-presentable. The existence of law as “objective presence” comes into being in the very language by which we speak of law or legal concepts. For example, when we say that a contract is a “meeting of the minds,” we take for granted that there is something “out there,” represented or referred to in our speech acts, constitutive of a “contract.” Legal concepts (and law more generally) are re-presented as being imbued with a positive content – something that is ultimately discernible, identifiable, and describable. This pre-eminence placed on the presence of law and its legal concepts gives the entire discourse of law the appearance of an unalterable, pure grounding — whereby the task of legal scholars, thinkers, lawyers, judges, policymakers, and laypeople alike is to determine its meaning (an epistemological-interpretive question).  This has the tendency to ratify an entire framework of discourse that subsumes the question “what is law?) into an altogether different question – what is the meaning of law. This has a tendency to reify law, rendering it static, immutable, and ultimately determinate and fixed. In short, by proclaiming legal meaning as arising from undifferentiated and determinable sources, legal scholars and others seeking to answer the question “what is law?” have completely glossed over the ontological question, and in their haste, moved briskly on to the epistemological question.

In thoroughly forgetting the ontological question of law, much of traditional legal thinking centers on the epistemological grounding of law: taking up questions of how we know the meaning of law, which meanings should prevail over others, which methods are best suited to arriving at the “truth” of law (or original intent), and other similar questions. Again, it must be reiterated that all of these questions presuppose something fundamental – not only about law itself, as the object of knowledge, but also the knower (the knowing subject). But again, there is a circularity here that must not be underestimated: insofar as the meaning of the Being of law is itself something always-already presupposed in our discourse of the nature of law, then it’s perfectly legitimate to focus on the epistemological-interpretative problem of what the law “means.”  Nowhere is this problem made more explicit than within the discourse of law school, where traditional “casebook method” problems arise in the context of institutionalizing and reproducing the discursive framework associated with the American adversarial system. Students are inaugurated into a mode of thinking about law that sees it constituted in an adversarial (binary) opposition whereby opposing parties offer varying, sometimes contradictory, interpretations of the law. What constitutes “a meeting of the minds” in contracts; or “reasonable person” in torts; or sufficient nexus for a party to open itself up to liability in an outside jurisdiction are all subjected to the interpretive process upon which the adversarial system has become known. Students are taught that similar interpretive events can occur among the legal authorities themselves, as when Circuit court decisions are “split,” or when the opinion of the trial court is overturned and remanded by a superior appellate court. Finally, nowhere is the interpretive problem brought to light in such an apparent and explicit way as in the field of “constitutional law,” where the Supreme Court (as the court of final determination on Federal Constitutional questions) is often times explicitly and self-consciously engaged in the penumbra of interpretive problems. Yet despite these interpretive variances, all the parties, and countless legal philosophers and scholars alike, concede that there’s a right answer “out there.” Different participants in the give-and-take of the hermeneutical maneuverings of law may disagree in countless ways on how to interpret legal rules and other phenomena; which methodologies and practices are most appropriate and best-suited for deciphering the “correct” answer; and what is allowable and what is not in carrying out such interpretations – but all agree that there is something definable, determinable, and essentially knowable about the law. [6] It should become clear now that the epistemological objectivity of law necessarily depends, and is intertwined with, the metaphysical objectivity of law as pure presence. But, as we shall see, these purely epistemological problems of knowing or discovering the meaning of law rest upon an inherited notion of truth by which legal philosophy has taken for granted, namely truth as adequatio (correspondence theory of truth).

In outlining the ways in which the question “what is law?” has been largely ignored, and instead substituted with a fetishistic preoccupation on the meaning of law, we can begin to see how law comes to take on a particular mythos. An exploration of this mythos will be dealt with in detail in Part II.


[1] Holmes, O. W. The Common Law (1881)

[2] After subjecting everything to his methodical doubt, Descartes discovered that the only thing remaining was his doubting itself – in other words, his doubting itself was and remained indubitable. Descartes follows this by declaring that I who doubts (thinks) exist; therefore, “cogito, ergo sum.” In effect, Descartes makes the move from epistemology to ontology by positing “thought” prior to “existence.” 

[3] Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere. 1986.

[4] By “realism” I mean here the view that legal concepts are discoverable entities somewhere “out there” and exist in and of themselves, for themselves. Not to be confused with “legal realism,” which attacked such a view. 

[5] By this I mean Derrida’s term “metaphysics of presence.” Derrida, Jacque. Of Grammatology. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997) p. 49.

[6] For a comprehensive analysis of this, see Schlag, Pierre. “Hiding the Ball.” New York University Law Review, 1996.

The Question Concerning National Socialism (Part I)

In his 1947 Letter on Humanism, written just two years after the devastating collapse of National Socialism and the Third Reich, Heidegger renounced all forms of “nationalism” [including National Socialism] as yet another (modern) manifestation and expression of the Western metaphysics of subjectivity. What is a “nation” – after all, but a collective of subjects? Yet, just thirteen years earlier, Heidegger had taken a radically different position. In National Socialism, he saw the authentic mission of the German Volk as the self-expression of the historicity of Being itself.

To be fair, Heidegger perhaps expected too much from National Socialism; or, at the very least, was too swept up in the political momentum (perhaps) of the times to take seriously the extreme contradictions that plagued (historic) National Socialism. What Heidegger did see was memorialized in his 1935 lecture (later published in 1953 as “An Introduction to Metaphysics”) in which Heidegger speaks of the “inner truth and greatness of th[at] movement (namely the encounter of planetarily deter-mined technology and modern human beings.” (Note: there is a long-standing controversy as to whether or not the bracketed modifier was originally included in the lecture text itself, as Heidegger says it was, or whether it was later added out of political expediency for the publication of “An Introduction to Metaphysics.” Either way, for our purposes here, we’re not so concerned with Heidegger the man, but rather his thought; as such, I see no harm in taking Heidegger at his word with respect to his own textual composition).

Modern historical discourse has no room for entertaining the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism. National Socialism is now indelibly linked with the attempted systematic destruction of European Jewry, the political (ontical) rise of Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP, and the military-history of the Second World War. In fact, the entire discourse surrounding the historical significance of National Socialism as a unique and distinctive historical phenomenon must take, or so the extant discursive practices dictate, such a concession as its starting point. All other attempts, including all attempts at an historical re-interpretation of the dominant discourse surrounding National Socialism, are either castigated as “revisionism” – as if a critical inquiry into existing paradigms was something to be discouraged; or simply ignored as apologists for the National Socialist philosophy. Yet reducing this complex historical phenomenon to any one particularity of its practical existence single-handedly closes off all insight into what was most “essential” to National Socialism: a revolutionary confrontation within and against the Western tradition in its entirety.

But it seems as though this failure to take seriously what for Heidegger constituted the “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism – that is, its own manner of opening up the way towards a confrontation with Western technological nihilism, has only closed-us off from a critical engagement with that unique twentieth century phenomenon. In essence, it conceals more than it reveals. Now we’re left with a mere “ontico-historical chronicling” of National Socialism (as interpreted through the dominant paradigm of the Victors of WW2) in which the phenomena (of National Socialism) is no longer allowed to speak for itself.

What is the harm in allowing National Socialism to speak for itself? What about the possibilities of a radical re-thinking of what it was that attracted Heidegger to the “Nazi” movement, and what it reveals about our own understanding of ourselves, our tradition, and the future of thinking? At the risk of being mis-understood, I think Heidegger did see something genuinely transformative and revolutionary in National Socialism – something that we may learn a great deal from, if only we begin to think in an entirely different way. We have so concerned ourselves with the ontical aspect, namely the violence and destruction committed in the name of (historic) National Socialism that we have closed ourselves off, and appropriated the significance of the failures and excesses of National Socialism to signify (to us) as the further grounds for under-cutting all such future attempts at Nationalism generally.

To clarify – this is not to say that historic National Socialism, as it existed from 1933 to 1945, ought to be re-produced in the context of the Twenty-First century. Not only is such a re-production literally impossible – for National Socialism was the expression of a highly particularized period in European history and must be understood as the self-expression of a peculiarly German Dasein, such an attempt at re-production would epitomize an inauthentic historicizing as a blind and un-faithful repetition of a particular and uniquely-situated historical destiny.

What is long-overdue is a radical re-interpretation under the auspices of “destructive retrieval.”  By “destructive retrieval,” I have in mind Heidegger’s destruktion as “critical appropriation,” upon which the historical interpretation of National Socialism will be de-structured in order to retrieve/appropriate its beginnings with the aim/intention of a repetition of its original insights and thus inform a new, radical beginning for our present understanding of National Socialism in all its possibility. In another sense, National Socialism ought to be subject to a different type of scrutiny an analysis as a concrete existential possibility of self-expression of a Volk with an eye towards gaining an insight into what constituted its most paradoxical features – chiefly, it’s own failure to confront its contradictory stance upon itself as both (a) violent transcendence and (b) entrenchment of, humanistic thinking.

At the outset, Heidegger’s understanding of destruktion is essential to setting the stage for our inquiry. In Being and Time, Heidegger proposes the de-structuring of the history of metaphysics in order to dissolve concealments brought about by the “hardened tradition,” and thus to return to the “primordial experiences” which constitute its source. Put another way, destruktion is a “critical dismantling” (abbau) of the tradition and at the same time a critical appropriation” of their original source. (Die Grundprobleme der Phanomenologie).  Thus, destruktion is at the same time “retrieval” (Wiederholung), by which some facets of the tradition are appropriated and undergo a subsequent repetition – however, such a repetition is by no means a re-production, nor is it the attempt to simulate the past; but rather, it is a creative and active process. “

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.

On the Threefold Cycle of Suffering

All of human existence, when viewed from the whole, is the eternal repetition of a three-fold cycle that we may call “suffering.” Within this cycle, human beings are thrust between inter-related stages of misery that constitute our lamentable condition of being-in-the-world. This primordial suffering, in turn, finds equal expression through the existential structure of lived time.

This cycle of suffering in turn is grounded in our being in time. Accordingly, it rests upon a necessary relationship with the type of beings for whom we are -in which we experience the subjectivity of our being-there grounded in (existential) temporality.

It’s no coincidence that the cycle of suffering shares a similar structure with lived time. This is necessarily so because it is our primordial relationship with our being-ness as expressed through time itself that invites us to suffer in the first place. Accordingly, the threefold cycle of suffering parallels the structure by which we exist in time, namely:

– Striving (future): striving refers to the type of suffering grounded in the individual’s concern for itself stretched through time, into an indefinite and temporal future. Human beings do not see themselves as merely existing in the present; rather, their being matters to them, and they take up this concern for existence through their own possibilities (projected into the future).

Thus, for each and every individual, it is his own future being that becomes primary. He is constantly re-affirming himself through his future possibilities; accordingly, his anticipation of the future determines his present course of action and disposition towards himself as he conceives himself, his past awareness of himself, and the world in which he always already finds himself.

It is the anticipation of future possibilities coming into actuality in which this level of suffering takes shape. Insofar as he anticipates a particular outcome or possibility, the individual must necessarily acknowledge a deficiency in his current being-in-the-world. If I set out to become a distinguished professor, it necessarily follows that I must acknowledge myself now as not a distinguished professor. Insofar as I make this my project, it becomes my meaningful commitment for my being. But, insofar as I remain unsatisfied in the completion of my project, I am less than the expectation that I set for myself.

The suffering of striving is increased by virtue of the fact that I never am my projects. One does not attain the rank of “distinguished professor” and then simply stop as if the mere recognition of status were simply enough; rather, one must continuously do what a distinguished professor does. If I do not write, research, have any students, or partake in the activities for which it means to be a distinguished professor — then I am not a distinguished professor.

Thus, the projects and goals for which we strive for are never truly “complete,” and thus we never attain the satisfaction of what we think it means “to be” that which we sought ought to become. Instead, we are suspended in perpetual becoming — never centered or grounded in our being but rather undergoing the arduous process of re-affirming our individual commitment to our defining projects. In short, I will never “be” a distinguished professor; rather, I will always forever find myself “becoming” a distinguished professor, despite the contrary conclusion which may be drawn from our ordinary usage of the verb “be.”

Likewise, striving always puts us at a grave risk for frustration, failure, and disappointment.  In this sense, striving always puts the individual at the risk of not achieving that which he sought ought to become, giving rise then to feelings of disappointment, disenchantment, or other negative feelings towards one’s self and the world. With sufficient regularity, such disappointment or frustration can lead to a rejection of striving and total detachment from the possibilities that give rise to one’s meaningful relation to himself.

– Anguish (past): Anguish is the level of suffering centered in the past. It is the expression of disharmony or imbalance within the self and its relation to the world and/or its own self. However, it should be noted that anguish need not necessarily manifest itself as a form of suffering about or over the past, though it certainly is possible (as in the feeling of regret).

Rather, in anguish, there is a breakdown in the self’s reflective relation to its past as the defining source of the content of its own self and its correlative worth to itself. Insofar as I can know myself, it is to the extent that I am capable of seeing myself as having a definite past, in which I interpret as a whole that which constitutes and gives intelligible meaning to my concrete and individual existence. Thus, the “I” (insofar as this may be said to exist) is not merely the material constituent parts that make up my body as it “exists” in space and time; nor is it the “mental stuff” for which my personality, my experience, my interiority are merely objective manifestations of; rather, the “I” is the expression of my relation to my own self as it relates to itself through existential or lived time.

When I reflect on my individual past, I recall specific memories. For me, these are never general nor abstract, but always concrete; this is so because (to me) they did not  happen to an amorphous “someone,” but rather the concrete me — a subjectively existing individual whose being matters for him. In this way, I am able to derive from my own relation to my past in lived-time that it was the same “I” that occupies my memories as the “I” that is thinking about those memories now.

This complex series of relations in which the very “mine-ness” of my own self is made possible is always vulnerable to categorical break-downs. It is in these “breakdowns” in the self’s relationship to itself that the suffering of anguish takes form. For instance, I may lose all connection to myself as a self, or perhaps never become aware of myself as a self (and thus not be a self); I may recognize myself as a self but reject becoming myself.  In its concrete forms, anguish gives rise to moods focusing on hyper-reflection inwards and onto the self, such as despair, certain forms of depression, melancholy, and other acute or chronic expressions of discordant relations of the self.

– Boredom (present): Boredom, as the third form of suffering, is unique in that it generally is understood not on account of any particular content or attributes which distinguish it from the other levels of suffering, but rather, its form. Generally speaking, boredom is the withdrawal of the related meaningfulness of being-in-the-world.

Boredom itself can be sub-divided into three distinctive stages, all of which represent, to varying degrees of intensity, the aforementioned withdrawal of individual meaning — either meaning in the world, meaning within the self, or total collapse of all meaning into nothginess. For more on the specific levels of boredom, click here.

From his lamentable birth to his lonely death, all individual human beings are thrown about within this cycle, tossed between each stage with neither purpose nor reason. The relationship between time and the cycle of suffering is expressed trough the type of beings we are — for we are the type of beings who care about our being-in-the-world.

Accordingly we are always already immersed within this cycle due to the ontological structure of being itself. Thus, what Heidegger called the “Care” structure, may properly be understood as the “root” or “grounding” of existential suffering.

Furthermore, there is no “progression” or hierarchy of suffering; this is so because it is cyclical, not linear. One does not undergo any growth or transfiguration between striving and anguish; anguish and boredom; or boredom and striving. Each stage is itself both self-sufficient but at the same time co-related to the next, and human existence as such is destined to exist through each stage, forever repeating itself.

This three-fold cycle expresses itself through our disposedness to the world, or rather, our “moods.” Our moods disclose to us (and, when articulated, to others) how it’s going in the world. Our moods reflect our insights into our own being-in-the-world, and thus are never entirely interior or affective mental states.

Certain moods express more clearly which stage of suffering any given individual may be experiencing. For instance, anxiety or dread is an expression of striving (future); whereas despair and sadness are expressions of anguish (past). Moreover, the vast complex of moods can express a simultaneous overlapping of different levels of suffering. For example, general melancholy may be found primarily in anguish, but certain forms may express all three stages of suffering.