The Sickness Unto Death, alongside The Concept of Anxiety, is one Soren Kierkegaard’s most telling and insightful works regarding human existence, and solidifies the author’s reputation as the “Father of Existentialism.”
Kierkegaard begins Part One (Section A) with a diagnosis: Despair is the sickness unto death. Accordingly, despair is a sickness of the spirit. But what is spirit? In one of the most puzzling sentences in the history of Western philosophy, Kierkegaard goes on to tell us that Spirit is the self. Okay…but what is the “self?”
“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self.”
Mind you, this is one of the very first lines of an otherwise obscenely dense paragraph. But, though elusive, there is meaning and intelligibility to be found here…and to better grasp this meaning, we must read on to understand the nature of the Self’s relation:
A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
If we try to parse out what Kierkegaard’s trying to say, we can see that the self isn’t the relation — but a relation that relates itself to itself — or in other words, the “relation’s relating.” This is important, because if the Self were merely the relation between a thesis and antithesis, we’d have nothing more than Hegelianism — which Kierkegaard greatly opposed (though not necessarily Hegel’s logic). Thus, the self is an active dialectic — a synthesis of opposites; but this is not the end of it, for the the self isn’t solely the relation/synthesis between infinite/finite; eternal/temporal; or necessity/possibility…but rather, the self is the activity of the relation’s relating — operating within and throughout the activity of the relation.
Accordingly, if we look at the relation by itself (and not the relation’s relating), Kierkegaard calls this the “third as a negative unity.” It’s helpful to think about this in the context of everyday relations. For example, if I have an apple and an orange — and both make up my lunch, then there is not only (a) an apple; and (b) an orange — there is also a “third” — the “relationship” itself. But the relation is not a thing in the Cartesian sense (an objective perceived by a conscious subject). The relation (or synthesis) is distinct from its individual constituent parts. It is important to also note that, for Kierkegaard, just because someone is a human being does not imply that they are truly a self. Human beings, by default, are merely the synthesis of opposing polarities — the relationship between what Kierkegaard calls “psyche and body.”
It should be noted that the relation (negative third) is formulated by Kierkegaard in three separate relations: infinte and the finite; the etneral and the temporal; and necessity and possibility. These concepts are elaborated on later in The Sickness Unto Death, and will play a significant role in Kierkegaard’s discussion of ‘despair,’ which results from an imbalance within the relation — something inherent in human beings (hence, we can be in despiar without even knowing it).
But at this point…we still haven’t established a self.
The relation’s relating then, is the “positive third:” it’s not static, but active and dynamic. Some scholars have even considered that the use of “Self” in Kierkegaard’s work may be best understood as a “verb,” connotating an activity, rather than a noune. And since Kierkegaard is concerned with the “relation’s relating,” its the entire process of synthesizing the constituent “elements” that make up human being into the activity of becoming a Self. The activity of becoming a self, then, for Kierkegaard, is existence which empowers the relation to relate to itself and therefore become a self through its own reflection. What elevates the negative unity to the positive is the contribution of a third-factor which Kierkegaard calls “spirit.”
It’s on these grounds that Kierkegaard provides an existential account of the criteria needed for a human being to become a self. Thus, in order to be a fully existing indivdiual Self is to make our own existence the object of our thinking [and thus establishing a positive unity].
Kierkegaard’s use of “spirit” here can be a bit misleading, or even suspicious to atheist readers. But the context in which Kierkegaard refers to spirit may be likened to Heidegger’s discussion of Dasein. In Being and Time, Heidegger describes Dasein as the entity whose mode of being is an issue for it; (likewise, the ‘essence of Dasein its its existence’). Thus, Dasein is self-referential in a similar vein as Kierkegaard’s self-relating self. For Dasein has a self-relating character (i.e., existenz); as such, Dasein “always understands itself in terms of its existence.”
To recap, human being is the relation between the two opposing aspects of body and psyche (soul/mind); but we now know that more is required for a human self: active introspection of the relation to its own self. This can be analogized to self-awareness. Ultimately, for Kierkegaard, the highest level of relation (in other words, to get out of despair) isn’t between the self and itself…but rather between the self and God — for its the relation between itself and its Creator (God) that provides the ultimate grounding for the relation.
But there’s a lot to be taken from Kierkegaard’s analysis of self even for an atheist. While it’s true that Kierkegaard was heavily influenced by his Lutheran Christian sensibilities — his philosophical contributions to coming to grips with what it means to be a human self are tremendous. Many scholars, including Prof. Hubert Dreyfus at UC Berkeley, have provided an agnostic interpretation of Kierkegaard in a way that may be meaningful for those who may otherwise be turned off by Kierkegaard’s Christianity.