The ‘Despairing Self’

As mentioned before, The Sickness unto Death is organized around the issue of the “sickness unto death,” which Anti-Climacus tells us is “despair.” We’ve already discussed how despair results in disequilibrium of the self’s relation – including the  absence or minimal involvement of Spirit in which no synthesis takes place at all towards the development of the self. However, Anti-Climacus provides a detailed and thorough accounting for despair. To be clear, “despair” in this context must be differentiated from the common, everyday meaning of that word, which is often referred to as “psychological despair.”  Phenomenologically speaking, the difference arises on account of the fact that psychological despair is derivative of our potentiality for being-in-despair (existentially). When we find ourselves in psychological despair, it is always on account of a definitive life-situation, where we find our specific horizons prematurely cut-off, arbitrarily delimited, or some other event that obstructs us. Moreover, we are able to relate to such feelings with respect to the specific phenomena under which they arise. For example, the root causes for our feelings of psychological despair are generally identifiable and readily articulated; we have a sense of the “why” we feel the hopeless shadow of despair. We can think psychological despair in purely ontic terminology, insofar as there are identifiable “causes” and “explanations” for our despair. Further, we are able to navigate such instances of psychological despair, either by re-orienting ourselves in regards to our situation, or accepting (that is, on rationalistic terms) whatever the circumstances which led to our despair. For example, when I was applying to graduate school, and was rejected by my top choice, I certainly felt the pangs of psychological despair – the hopelessness and sense of resignation and doom overtook me; but, it was only a matter of time before which I recognized that it was possible to accept the situation, and either accept an offer from another school or simply go back and work on my application materials and try again next time around.

Existential despair, is fundamentally different in almost every respect.  To begin with, the type of despair for which Anti-Climacus speaks is something deeper; darker; and exists outside the confines of rational discourse. It refers to an interior darkness and futility within the structures of the self. But it is not a recognition of futility in the manner of arising out of specific conditions encountered in the world, but rather, is constituted in the dis-closure of the futility of existence as-such. In this manner, existential despair cannot be “overcome,” or “worked around” in the way as psychological despair because there is no specific cause. Causal language itself is inadequate, for existential despair affects not merely one dimension of our horizon, but rather the entirety of our whole horizontal understanding – once one becomes aware of one’s own despair, there is no  way around our confrontations with the absurdity of the flux, of the inter-play of our ownmost becoming.

Similar to other moods, despair is never grounded in something outside ourselves; but rather, always emanates from within, and in turn may be projected from within to the outside. Thus, we may draw the inappropriate conclusion that what we despair over is something external to us, out there in the world, when in reality we despair over ourselves.

What is “essential” about existential despair is that there is no human being for whom his soul is not in some way, shape, or form confronted with despair – even if he is unaware of it. Anti-Climacus uses this as the starting point, beginning with the first phase of despair – to not be conscious of one’s own despair.  This “lowest” form of despair is the most problematic, for one can only take the necessary steps to coming-to-terms with despair, and eventually superseding despair, by virtue of owning up to our despair, which paves the way for faith (which is itself the only solution, according to Anti-Climacus, to existential despair).  What makes unconscious despair so problematic is that the individual may not be aware that he is in despair. On the contrary, for all intents and purposes, he may indeed feel as though life is “good.” This speaks to the “universality” of despair – which, for Anti-Climacus, goes to show that despair is a (for lack of a better word) default possibility by which human beings already find themselves regardless of their consciousness [of their despair].

In Chapter 3, Anti-Climacus tells us that the various forms of “this sickness” must be “discoverable abstractly by reflecting upon the factors which compose the self as a synthesis. He continues:

“The self is composed of infinity and finiteness. But the synthesis is a relationship, and it is a relationship which, though it is derived, relates itself to itself, which means freedom. But freedom is the dialectical element in the terms possibility and necessity.”

Anti-Climacus stipulates that “consciousness is the decisive criterion of the self,” and thus “despair must be viewed under the category of consciousness.”

Anti-Climacus identifies three distinct categories or ways in which despair can become manifest – which at the same time reflects the three aspects of the relation.  Put another way, despair is a “break” in the relationship between the horizontal, reflective, and vertical transcendent which constitute the self. : (1) ignorance of having an eternal self; this form of despair applies to the aesthete, who is not reflective, and thus unaware of having a self; he therefore exists as mis-relation, but at the same time is unaware of it. (2) “in despair not to will to be oneself,” wishing to be another self (weakness); if understood in congruence with the stages on life’s way, this could be said to be the despair of the ethical individual. This is a person who suffers from despair,  but is also conscious of his being in despair. The ethical individual relates, but when he relates to himself, he is in despair so long as he is not willing to be in such a relation to himself. If we recall that the ethical stands before the universal,  his despair is constituted in his failing to ever live up to the universal or eternal law by which he stands before. Such an ethical individual then is always wanting to be better than who he is at the reminder of his ever-present shortcomings. Thus, insofar as he wills to be better than the self for which he already is, he is unwilling to be himself. Finally, (3) asserting the self without relation to God (defiance); this is the despair of the individual in religiousness A, who strives to become himself, wills to be himself, however, every effort to be a pure self is caught up in his despair over his finite, temporal being.

Despair, as an existential possibility, is both positive and negative. Insofar as it is positive (that is, with respect to its ability to enable the self to become itself), it is what teaches us to become ourselves – reminding us that we exist as possible on account of the recognition that for “God everything is possible.” But despair is also at the same time a sickness; albeit, a sickness that pushes us towards becoming our own self.

Yet when we despair – no matter what it is that we believe ourselves to despair over, it is always something beyond the merely immediate; but rather, something eternal. This applies even to the aesthetic individual.  Despair propels us to movement – which itself is the very basis of becoming. Yet, the highest self for which we may become on our own is inherently limited; for, in order to make the move from infinite resignation (Religiousness A) to Faith (religiousness B), we need the help of God. Faith is not a one-way street.  Despair cannot be overcome by living in merely the eternal or the temporal, nor the infinite nor the finite; but rather – all of the above simultaneously; a movement possible only by relation to God – for whom all is possible.  This is the nature of the “paradox” – which, insofar as it applies to The Sickness Unto Death, represents the existentiell contradiction of stepping in both the eternal and temporal through Faith.

In the text itself, Anti-Climacus creates a detailed inventory of despair which encapsulates the above-referenced “polarities” of finitude/infinitude; necessity/possibility; and consciousness/unconsciousness. Structurally speaking, the analysis of the differing forms of despair looks like this:

  1. Despair Regarded in Such a Way That One Does Not Reflect Whether It is Conscious or Not, So That One Reflects Only upon the Factors of the Synthesis.
    1. Despair viewed under the aspects of Finitude/Infinitude

i.      Despair of Infinitude is Due to Lack of Finitude

ii.      Despair of Finitude is Due to Lack of Infinitude

  1. Despair Viewed Under the Aspects of Possibility/Necessity

i.      Despair of Possibility is Due to Lack of Necessity

ii.      Despair of Necessity is Due to Lack of Possibility

  1. Despair Viewed Under the Aspect of Consciousness
    1. Despair which is Unconscious that it is Despair, or the Despairing Unconsciousness of having a Self and an Eternal Self
    2. The Despair which is Conscious of being Despair, as also it is Conscious of being a Self wherein there is after all something Eternal, and then is either in despair at not willing to be itself (weakness), or in despair at willing to be itself.

i.      Despair at not Willing to be Oneself, the Despair of Weakness

  1. (i)Despair Over the Earthly or Over Something Earthly
  2. (ii) Despair about the eternal or over oneself

ii.      The despair of willing despairingly to be oneself — defiance



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.

B&T: The Task of Destroying [Destruktion] the History of Ontology

‘When tradition […] becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it “transmits” is made so inaccessible […] that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial “sources” from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn.’ (¶6)

‘If the question of being is to achieve clarity about its own history, then this hardened tradition must be loosened up and the concealments which it has brought about must be dissolved […] But this destruction is just as far from having the negative sense of shaking off the ontological tradition. We must, on the contrary, stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition […].’ (§6¶¶8-9)

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.

Heidegger, National Socialism, and Nihilism

There are few who would deny Heidegger his rightful place as the most influential and important philosopher of the Twentieth Century; it is equally undeniable that Heidegger was at the same time one of the most controversial thinkers of his time. As a thinker, Heidegger set about to deconstruct the entire history of Western philosophy – dislodging the tradition of metaphysics-as-presence and setting a groundbreaking new path towards originary thinking that continues to be felt long after his demise. Yet, Heidegger was also extremely controversial outside of his role as  thinker – but also as a living, concrete individual who found himself engaged in the most fascinating and demanding of times. Nowadays, in the wake of the explosion of scholarship delving into Heidegger’s association and involvement with German National Socialism, it is seemingly impossible for any serious student of Heidegger’s thought to ignore this feature of both the philosopher and his philosophy.

Yet at the same time, much of the existing scholarship is fundamentally inadequate – committing itself to following a path that Heidegger himself would’ve surely criticized for having utterly missed the point. Beginning with Farias’ book, Heidegger et la Nazism, all the way through Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2009)–  the debate surrounding “Heidegger and Nazism” has largely polarized into two opposing camps: his critics who claim that Heidegger’s affiliation with National Socialism was a “natural” consequent stemming or deriving from his philosophy;  versus his supporters, who largely claim that Heidegger’s preoccupation with National Socialism was a “personal error” or mistake – the actions of a great thinker who simply lacked political acumen.

That the very structure of this discursive endeavor has degenerated into such an artificial dichotomy presents itself as a significant obstacle standing in the way to any further understanding of the complex relationship between Heidegger’s thought on the one hand, and National Socialism as an historical phenomenon on the other.  Worst of all are those attempts by the likes of Victor Farias which betray a complete lack of effort to fully engage with Heidegger’s thought;  but moreover, insofar as one treats historical phenomena as mere “present-to-hand,” one artificially (and superficially) strips the phenomena of that upon-which such phenomena was constituted (made possible) in the first place.  In other words – the very attempt to study Heidegger as a concrete individual confronted with the calling of his time through the lens of dispassionate and objective historical science misses an important piece of this never-ending controversy.

The “Heidegger and Nazism” controversy almost exclusively takes as its starting point the proposition that National Socialism is, was, and always has been, something that needs to be denounced, thoroughly discredited, or de-legitimized less one becomes labeled a “revisionst,” or worst – sympathetic with National Socialist ideals. This is not only patently absurd, but represents a great disservice to genuine scholarship and thinking.  That modern day historical discourse with respect to National Socialism has the tendency to reduce that event as synonymous with genocide and mass-murder, war and destruction, is to trivialize National Socialism and conceal its importance as an epoch-defining moment in Twentieth Century history. In short, the entire framework of the discourse of National Socialism operates merely at the level of ontical-valuation. Such a framework is problematic in particular because it fails to take account for the very ontological, as opposed to ontic, meaning by which Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism took place. Likewise, it has the particularly un-helpful effect of reducing the complexities of National Socialism as unique historical phenomena and thereby “annihilating” any genuine understanding with regards to an otherwise incredibly serious subject matter. This much can be accounted for by the attempt to constrain National Socialism within the delimitations of the progressivist-historical narrative and liberal-democratic ideology.  Thus, the interpretation of National Socialism was always already premised on a series of particular, albeit un-defined, presuppositions. Consequently, it follows that the dominant narrative constrains the horizon upon which National Socialism is subsequently interpreted as always already something “evil,” “monstrous,” and “repulsive.”  National Socialism, if one begins from the presuppositions of the liberal-democratic ideology and progressivist historical narrative, is an aberration, a suspension from the normal course of events upon which human consciousness marches teleologically towards ultimate Enlightenment and universal the humanitarian ideal.

But restricting the interpretation of National Socialism to this extant narrative renders such interpretations fundamentally flawed for two critical reasons. First, this narrative takes itself to be objective, and therefore always already privileges the meaning upon-which it itself imposes on the historical phenomena – thus concealing its own fatalistic approach to historical interpretation. The progressivist-historical narrative interprets in a manner fundamentally incapable of truly coming to an understanding with the “meaning” of National Socialism that may have appeared to Heidegger – and countless other Germans of that particular point in time – as the “inner truth and greatness” of the movement. Focusing exclusively on National Socialism as a doctrine and philosophico-political expression of racialist supremacy and state terrorism is about as useful as reading the Wikipedia entry for Being and Time and allowing yourself to be convinced that you “understand” the intricacies and radical possibilities set forth in that publication. In other words – the failure to have a meaningful discussion with respect to Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is in part on account of a failure to truly grasp National Socialism not only in its actuality, but in the wholeness of its totality.

To fully grasp the significance of National Socialism as historical-phenomenon one simply cannot take the all-too convenient route of de-contextualizing National Socialism’s origins – how it came to be, and that upon-which National Socialism represented itself as the authentic destiny of the German Volk. To miss this piece of the puzzle seems, at least to me, to miss the entire point of Heidegger’s association and interest in National Socialism. For Heidegger’s own association, and later confrontation, with National Socialism always took place within the context of the historicity of the German Volk. More specifically, National Socialism represented the subtle yet complex inter-play between repetition and retrieval of the German Volk whose essence is futural as futural retrieval of the chthonic – its ownmost subterranean rootedness in the Earth.

At the same time, to separate National Socialism from the discourse surrounding the history and trajectory of Western nihilism equally fails to take full account of National Socialism as historical phenomena. In 1933, Heidegger saw in National Socialism the “counter-movement” to Western technological nihilism – a retrieval of the ancient Pre-Socratic Greek way of originary thinking the question of Being as projected into the futurity of the German Volk; only later, however, when National Socialism failed to live up to Heidegger’s expectation of a second “ontological” revolution, did he fully see that National Socialism always already was impregnated with the most destructive type of subjectivism and nihilistic “will to will” of the Western tradition. Indeed, this was the very paradox of National Socialism, which always found itself caught in the midst of a perplexing dialogue with itself in relation to its historical significance: both a counter-movement to nihilism while at the same time nihilistic itself. On the one hand, National Socialism was always-already defined by its hostility to the tradition, particularly in its hostility to the Enlightenment ideals of universal humanism and the explicit tradition of the French Revolution; however, whether or not this would inevitably translate into providing a springboard for Heidegger’s anticipation of the coming of a “new beginning” is another matter altogether. What is clear, however, is that even before the onset of War, Heidegger’s own relationship to National Socialism, and perhaps the broader political dimensions of Heidegger’s thought, underwent what Julian Young has called a transition from the “activist” rhetoric and thinking of Heidegger circa 1933-34 (the days of the Rectorate) to a more quiestist and passive engagement in the form of Gelassenheit.

Nevertheless, no matter how our own post-National Socialism historical narrative depicts Heidegger and/or National Socialism, it is beyond dispute that Heidegger was no “ordinary Nazi.” For example, Heidegger was never a convinced biological-racist. Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures demonstrate this point – as evidenced in his attempt to provide a counter-interpretation of Nietzsche to the predominantly biologistic-naturalistic interpretation offered by the leading German Nietzsche scholar and Heidegger’s contemporary, Alfred Baeumler. To be fair, it must be conceded that both Heidegger and Baeumler, despite their very significant differences, did belong to a shared historical context that emerged in the wake of the Great War, premised on a vision that saw within National Socialism a re-turn to the autochthonous and rootedness of the German Volk in the soil, and the retrieval of the arche as projected into the opening-up of an-other beginning. Yet, in the first half of the Nietzsche lectures, Heidegger will see in Nietzsche himself the ending-as-beginning, and will re-emphasize Nietzsche’s emphasis on “Being,” as opposed to “Values,” as was the case in Baeumler et. al – only later to see in Nietzsche the very destructiveness of the nihilistic “will to will” long at work within the history of the West — a fatal error that Heidegger also  saw developing within National Socialism that would end in the total destruction of Germany at the hands of the Allies by the end of the War.

Heidegger was never a “National Socialist” in the way in which that term implies adherence to the NSDAP’s main party platform; indeed, Heidegger never fully embraced the standard NSDAP line, but rather devised what Carl von Weizsacker called “Freiburg National Socialism.” Heidegger never embraced or accepted the dominant “worldview” (Weltanschauung). Heidegger’s idiosyncratic approach to the question of National Socialism would even put him at odds with major National Socialist ideologues and philosophers, including Rosenberg, Baeumler, Krieck and others. He also rejected the founding of a new mythos for German Dasein rooted in the Volkisch mythos of the Aryan Master Race– but rather in the autochthonous founding of a new-beginning rooted in the originary thinking and openness to the question of Being of Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics.    

Moreover, Heidegger never fully identified himself with the Revolution of 1933 which saw Adolf Hitler ascend to the position of Chancellor of the Reich. According to Charles Bambach, in his highly-detailed and thought-provoking work, Heidegger’s Roots, Heidegger saw the 1933 NSDAP revolution as merely the first-phase upon-which the groundwork was being laid for a second “ontological” revolution which “alone could achieve the ‘total transformation of German Dasein’” and overcome the rootlessness of Western nihilism.  Such hopes for a coming ontological revolution was the cornerstone of Heidegger’s 1933 Rectoral Address, in which Heidegger saw the German University playing a fundamental and pivotal role. Thus, the “self-expression of the German University” is by no means a mere philosophical endorsement of Hitlerism as it existed in 1933; but rather, a challenge of sorts to push National Socialism beyond the politico-ontical realm and into the spiritual and ontological.  It is a call for the University to take a leading role in the “spiritual” life of the Volk in the battle against the ontological decline of the West; as paving the way for the University beyond a mere institution of specialized learning into its authentic mission as the fundamental site for originary questioning. Thus, it was the University that would serve as the vanguard for the second “ontological” revolution of National Socialism.

Much of the confusion as to the intent behind the Rectoral Address is the result of Heidegger’s otherwise inflammatory language – with its many references to common National Socialist themes and terminology. But one cannot take this at face value – and as several scholars have remarked, the Address is much more couched in terms of a Nietzschean, rather than Hitlerist, dialogue. Moreover, separating the Rectoral Address from the totality of Heidegger’s engagement and eventual confrontation with National Socialism offers only a superficial interpretation, for such an interpretation leaves one in the dark as to regards what Heidegger is actually trying to say in the Rectoral Address. Even Heidegger’s references to “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil), which permeate the Rectoral speech, should not be constrained to the way in which these terms were formulated in the traditional National Socialist rhetoric. For Heidegger, Blut und Boden had everything to do with retrieving the ancient, autochthonous roots of German Dasein in the form of originary questioning – and not the otherwise biological framework as articulated by the more “traditional” National Socialist ideologues such as Darre.

Above all, it behooves scholars interested in the question of Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism to recognize how National Socialism as a concrete expression of German Dasein in 1933 constituted what appeared as a genuine and authentic response to the crisis of Western nihilism. This situatedness within the history of Western nihilism constituted for Heidegger what was most attractive in the National Socialist Revolution – or what he himself identified as “the inner truth and greatness” of the movement. Heidegger, for his part, was indeed as much a product of what has become known as the “ideas of 1914,” which included a radical and militantly antagonistic opposition to the “Ideas of 1789.” There is considerable evidence to suggest that Heidegger was undoubtedly influenced by the so-called “Conservative Revolution” in Germany in the inter-war years. Again, Blambach’s work is essential in understanding this point. In Heidegger’s Roots, Blambach goes to great lengths to situate Heidegger within the historical context of crisis following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I and the nation’s abysmal treatment at the hands of the victors.  For Heidegger and many others at the time – National Socialism represented an authentic confrontation with democratic-bourgeois-liberalism on the one hand, and Bolshevism on the other; a “third-way” so-to-speak between the two nihilistic camps, which for Heidegger represented the culmination of technological nihilism (Introduction to Metaphysics). National Socialism, for its part, especially in 1933-4, represented a genuine and understandable alternative to the German Volk between two otherwise nihilistic tendencies that threatened to swallow Germany whole; it represented a constituted force and phenomena that understood itself as projecting a possibility of a new beginning outside the tradition of metaphysics-as-presence and technological nihilism.

There are many factors that likely motivated Heidegger to involve himself with National Socialism. I think German philosopher and historian Ernst Nolte (a student and family friend of Heidegger’s during the NS period) has perhaps said it best when he says that Heidegger’s motivations in 1933 were largely the result of certain philosophical assumptions and hopes; that such assumptions and hopes were a product of Heidegger’s youth and the broader cultural-philosophical milieu in which Heidegger found himself and his generation in the wake of the annihilation and devastation of the Great War.

At this juncture it must absolutely be stressed that none of the above is intended to suggest, however that there is any necessary connection between Heidegger’s thought on the one hand, and the explicitly political worldview of National Socialism. Rather, Heidegger’s involvement with the NSDAP was ultimately and fundamentally his personal doing. To attempt to draw such necessary and causal connections is exactly the problem. However, it is equally important to stress the manner in which Heidegger took seriously the problem of Western nihilism and National Socialism and not treat it as a mere “personal error” of someone caught up in the spirit of the times who simply misjudged or miscalculated the intentions of the NSDAP and National Socialism generally. What can be adduced, however, is that Heidegger’s personal and philosophical engagement with National Socialism was always a unique and idiosyncratic one; an engagement that, perhaps premised on certain expectations, hopes, and prejudices, did in fact attempt to apply his own body of thought to National Socialism as it emerged. It was not the case that Heidegger’s philosophical thought was ready-made for National Socialism – but that rather he, as a concrete existing individual, sought to situate ontological thinking within the historical, cultural, and political discourse of National Socialism.

In conclusion, if we are to have any genuine insight into the relationship between Heidegger and National Socialism, then we must do so on the terms by which such events took place. It is imperative that the phenomena of National Socialism be understood within the proper context, and not merely treated as “objective” or “present-to-hand” data by which yet another narrative may be construed –subject to the privileges and prejudices of our contemporary post-WW2 perspective. The point is not to re-construct yet another or alternative narrative; but to de-construct existing narratives, and to delineate the limitations of our historical understanding. So long as our discursive practices with regards to the question of Heidegger and Nazism operate within the framework of either indictment or exoneration, we delude ourselves into thinking that what is merely present is truth, thus concealing ourselves from a more primordial engagement with the underlying phenomena.

On Philosophizing

What meaningful role is left for philosophy if not to concern itself first and foremost with existences? An elaborate inquiry into the conditions of existence seems to be the only meaningful engagement left open for genuine thinking. Yet, even this humblest of endeavors is tainted with a bleak awareness of its own inevitable uselessness. For where is the audience for whom the inquiry will have any meaning? If philosophical inquiring is an attempt at understanding, at seeing, and hearing, then it must also take on the task of communicating by way of “pointing out.”

But meaningfulness is always in relation to the individual; and the individual always already occupies some particular standpoint. The relative receptivity of any given individual will in turn depend on his or her related standpoint as regards this or that particular assertion.  Meaning itself is meaningless, and knowledge of the problem offers little comfort given the gravity of our impotence to do anything about it. We are stuck; fallen by default and far too consumed by existential atrophy to even imagine a way out.


Authentic philosophy is never detached, nor is it, strictly speaking, a scientific endeavor (insofar as “scientific” refers wholly to the naturalistic view by which all phenomena is reduced to present-at-hand objects). Rather, authentic philosophy takes recognizes, first and foremost, that philosophizing is an event or experience – and thus aims to describe and recount the experience as a telling of personal experience. In this sense, authentic philosophizing is constituted in both a “seeing” and a “listening.”  It draws out that which the philosopher, as living, existing discloser sees through experiencing the phenomena. Such seeing is only possible if taken from the perspective of an engaged and involved self in the world. At the same time, authentic philosophy must retain an essential openness — an openness that allows philosophy “to be,” approaching its essence and allowing it to openly speak.

Philosophy, thusly understood, is never confined to the mere learning of past systems and doctrines. On the contrary – when philosophy is reduced to a mere academic affair, genuine philosophy is impossible, and the so-called “philosopher” is seduced into inauthenticity,  Inauthentic philosophy is incapable of speaking, and deprives philosophy of what is most essential to it,  and thus de-valuing itself into intellectual Idle talk.


If authentic philosophy is allowed to speak, then how does it speak to us? To speak genuinely, that is, to escape the confines of the average everyday intelligibility of “public” language – with its tendency to flatten and level – authentic philosophy must allow the phenomena to speak for itself as itself.  Where philosophy transcends the boundaries of average intelligibility, it encounters the lyrical. The lyrical expression of philosophy allows philosophy to speak with integrity. It neither reduces philosophy to a mere body of syllogisms, nor attempts to explain.

Lyrical philosophy finds its most natural expression in the aphorism. Above all, the aphoristic method of speaking philosophically entails dissolution of all pretenses to form, and thus allowing the lyrical to permeate through the clutter of public language and be heard to those attuned to its truths. Aphoristic writing also reflects the inner lyricism of the thinker himself – allowing personal subjective thought to emanate as such, without imposing the excessive formalism so evident in other styles of philosophizing (particularly the rigor mortis found in contemporary academic philosophizing).

Above all, the aphorism allows philosophy to speak authentically by its characteristic disdain for all system-building and totalizing worldviews; by allowing philosophy to get back to its originary rootedness in the asking of the question – a return to the “wonderment” where, according to Heidegger, philosophy encounters its first beginning. What renders the aphorism so particularly hostile to all grand and systematic constructions of thought is its uniquely destructive power ; that is, a power possessing the possibility for the deconstructive-leveling of both inauthentic philosophy as well as average everyday intelligibility, and thus paving the way for genuine thinking.  In other words, the aphorism embodies that Nietzschean will towards creative-destruction. Such a will-towards destruction is the very heart and soul of indirect aphoristic communication.


Authentic lyrical philosophy takes as its audience the existing individual; for whom he is an audience unto himself, and for whom truth exists for him.  Thus, the aphorism’s “truths,” like those of poetry, are thus never “objective” in the way that term is commonly understood; for such “objective” truth is incomprehensible if one assumes that such “truth” presumes a correspondence between the phenomena and the perceiver whom exists outside the individual’s being-in-the-world. In other words, aphoristic truth is subjective; yet, by this term we do not mean to imply a notion of egoistic-subjectivism or relativism. The truths of the aphorism are communicable beyond the given individual, and thus perceptible and coherent to a plurality of individual selves. Rather, the “truth” by which the aphorism speaks is inter-subjective – calling forth “truth” from concealment in accordance with that which it already is for the given individual as being-in-the-world.

A Note on Freedom

Existence presents itself chiefly as a task – each individual human being tasked with its own project – namely, becoming a self. Insofar as each individual is concerned, his particular project is both determined and un-determined for him. It is determined insofar as the individual always finds itself situated in the world; and thus its project is a thrown project. It is at the same time un-determined insofar as the existing individual self is responsible for his choosing among the existent possibilities. But which meaningful possibilities present themselves to the individual self as real possibilities, is in large part determined by the vast network of meaning-given structures by which the individual understands itself, and its possibilities in the world, at all.

Thus, while I am free to choose for myself whether I take up my understanding of my being-in-the-world as a student, a doctor, a lawyer, a husband, or philosopher; I am not free to choose from among those possibilities for which, on account of my thrownness, do not present themselves to me as meaningful possibilities.

Thus, Sartre is wrong when he concludes that human being’s freedom (of action) is absolute. This presumes that one can get fully behind, or separate from, one’s facticity; but this only evidences Sartre’s latent Cartesianism – and indeed, contributing to his general misreading of Heidegger. In other words, Sartre is unable to move beyond his presupposition of a subject removed, or detached from his situated-ness in the world.

It still suffices to say that human being is doomed to his freedom. Even if our freedom isn’t the absolute freedom that Sartre believes it to be, we are still all alone, abandoned to ourselves, and faced with the same abysmal groundlessness of existence – with only the slight qualification as regards the otherwise tenuous security offered by our facticity.