Tagged: Existentialism

Demythologizing Law


What do we mean when we pose the question, “what is law?” To be sure, the canonical tradition of Western legal-philosophical thought proffers a wide variety of answers. In brief summary, law is “transcendental nonsense,” it is “what courts do in fact;” it is the concretization of universal principles that exist “out there;” it is a structure of inter-related and arbitrary relations between signifier and signified put into use by practitioners of the law in the form of rhetoric;  it is violence, and the possibility upon which the individual accepts his inferior status to the awesome power of the sovereign; it is a constituent part of the hierarchical organization and structure of society by which those on top remain on top; etc. In short, in posing the question, “what is law?” we take for granted that we know what it is, in fact, that the question asks. The question itself presupposes a response – law is something; something that we can grasp, wrap our head around, whose features may be empirically described, observed, and/or known definitively.

My goal in the following series of posts is not to set about composing a definitive answer to the question, “what is law?” Rather, my aim is to problematize the very question itself; to disabuse my reader of his or her faith in thinking that the meaning of the question is to provide any answer at all. What I will be attempting to demonstrate in the next several pages is that, by virtue of posing the question, we may be able to retrieve the question from the very metaphysical framework upon which the question has been historically subjugated. In doing so, it is my intention that we will be able to examine the means by which this fundamental question of legal thought will be brought back to its originary difficulty. In short, we will be attempting a destructive interpretation of law: that is, freeing the question (what is law?) from entrenched forgetfulness, and shaking off the layers of onto-theo-logical metaphysical interpretation that has artificially grounded the question – in effect, made it too easy.

We will begin our destructive reading of the question “what is law?” by examining what it is we mean by the question; how does it signify its intelligibility to us, and what does it mean for us beings who pose the question. This will entail an explication of the meaning/intelligibility of asking the question as such, while at the same time interpreting and describing how the question itself brings to light our more general problem in the context of our initial findings. In Part II, we will begin to examining the mythologizing of law more closely – examining how modern legal theory has either ignored this question altogether, or, when it has taken it upon itself to pose the question, has insufficiently dealt with it. In Part III our analysis will take a minor detour by way of looking at the historical development of this mythology of law, drawing on for the purposes of our analysis Foucault’s genealogy of the “problem of population.” In Part IV we will examine the rise of the Cartesian “subject” and its role in traditional legal thought. In Part V we will read the history of the rise of the “problem of population” alongside the rise of the modern subject and bring them together in Heidegger’s notion of the crisis of global technology and the “age of the world picture.” In Part VI we will continue our destructive dialogue with traditional legal philosophy by proposing a thoroughgoing demythologizing of the law with an explication of the mythos of law. Whatever conclusions may be drawn from our discussion will be outlined and examined in Part VII.

Of Love, Surrender, and Releasement

Love, that most exquisite, dangerous, and mysterious modification  of our being-with, both entices and repels us. It fascinates us, compels us, and pulls us in, but at the same time its power of appeal we so desperately try to resist. Love is that which brings us to the brink of unreality — to the outermost boundaries of our being-in-the-world…calling on us to sacrifice everything – our very Being if necessary– for the sake of the Other.

Love, the most authentic and yet most terrifying existentielle modification of Dasein’s being-with, appeals to us on account of Dasein’s very existential structure (being-with-others); yet, paradoxically, it yield a tremendous and horrifying power over our being that it we feel compelled to turn away from it and ignore it. We may feel its call, the call that eviscerates us; with its demanding the most complete and total submission; a surrendering, so to speak, of the solitariness of the Self to the affirmation of the Other’s power over us.

Love is, paradoxically, both creative and destructive;  an affirmation and denial; a saying “yes to the Other” and “no” to ourselves.

To feel the power of love’s call, the call of the Other, one must first “see” the other in her other-ness. Her Dasein, through her ability-to-be-herself, is what is at stake in love’s appeal. It is the appeal of the other-as-a-self, in her concretized and individuated selfhood, that appeals/calls on me. What does it ask of me?

This is the basis upon which all authentic love comes into existence (becomes possible as a possibility for this Dasein-itself).  The Being-of-Love is the horizon upon which my Dasein is called by, and ultimately towards, the Dasein of the other as the center of her self-hood; of her freedom in her ability-to-be. Love requires the concrete; for “one” does not love. The call of love can neither be felt nor heard by the one-self; but only by the my-self. The call of authentic love cuts through the clutter of the idle-chatter; of the confusion and disorientation of the inauthentic being-in of our average and everyday fallenness. It calls to me, in the my-own-ness of my Dasein, and asks of me to choose. One way or another, it is “I,” as a responsible (response-able) individual Dasein, that is called.

At this point authentic love must be isolated and distinguished from the disjointed muddle that nowadays passes for “love.” To be clear, it makes little sense to speak of an “inauthentic love,” for love exists only concretely, when the Dasein-of-the-other calls to my Dasein, and in response I choose resolutely to respond to the call with a “yes,” which at the same time is a “no.” But, before we get to that, it must absolutely be stressed that inauthentic love is a complete degeneration of love, and thus cannot meaningfully be considered “love” at all. For authentic love transcends the mired frenzy of modern technology, and is incomprehensible to the calculative thinking of disinterred subjects in their manipulation of objects. It defies all calculated and utilitarian thinking – and from this perspective, from that of the de-centered and uprooted “subject,” is useless. Nor can love be expressed as universal, which is only a distortion of other, more derivative and to an extent disengaged forms of affectedness for the Other. For example, one who says, “I love nature,” or “I love my neighbors,” speaks not of love, but rather, appreciation, preference, or enchantment. Without concretization, without all the inherent risks of infinite passion for the finitude of this or that Dasein, one is not truly “called upon” at all, and thus cannot authentically be referred to as love in itself. For “to love” an abstraction demands nothing of Dasein; it is, in its essence, a neutered and emasculated love – one without risk, without commitment, and without surrender. It demands nothing and so, it requires that we give nothing. One need only think about the way in which, someone who professes to love nature or a “cause” of some sort, is able to superficially engage in such a commitment by passively donating to the Sierra Club or sacrificing one weekend out of the year to collect signatures for this or that cause.

Authentic love, however, demands. It demands that we be response-able to its call. It demands because it is always a call “to me,” an invitation which presents itself both as a gift and command. It invites me to release my-self from the frenzy of modern technology; to release my-self from the will-to-power of our narrow epochal understanding of Being. It requires that I transcend the mere everydayness of my facticity, and see in the Other that she, too, in her Otherness, is at the same time more than her own factical existence. She is, in her Otherness, possibility-for-me, and at the same time, her ownmost possibility-to-be.

If one feels the call of love, one is then given over to choice. Because it is the “I” who receives this call, it is “I” who must choose. I may respond in any number of ways; but ultimately, love, dis-closes something about my Dasein, too: that I, as a being for whom its Being is at issue, must choose. In this capacity, I can remain un-touched by the call of the Other (ignore), I can reject it, or I can affirm it. Of course, between these possibility lies a plethora of distinct variations. But ultimately, one cannot escape the very necessity of choice itself. Authentic love then calls on me not only to respond, but awakens within me my response-ability; my own-most ability to be that transcends my facticity because I am always already an unfinished future; always ahead of myself in transcending the average everydayness of the present moment. I am called to no-longer view myself as a mere “ego” or “conscious subject” detached from the world of objects. In short, it provides this Dasein with the possibility, if taken up in all earnestness, to relinquish itself from the trappings of modern technology; to  release itself from its (mis)conception of itself as a self-sufficient entity capable of securing its Being in the (mistaken) solid grounding of metaphysical pretenses. In short, love calls on us to step outside of our-self, dispossess the self, in order to find its authentic self.

But the “call” of love does not constitute the totality of the Being-of-love itself; for, in order for love to come into being, it must be met with a reciprocal response. It is the responsiveness of this Dasein for whom the call calls that completes love’s circuitry. In saying “yes” to the call of the Other, I relinquish all of the trappings of the metaphysics of technology, of the insatiable compulsion to dominate and impose; manipulate and control. Dasein, in releasing itself from the disenchanted egotism of the modern age, Dasein affirms the other in-itself, as a Dasein with a Self that has its own possibilities, its own fate. In saying “yes,” Dasein chooses to bound itself to the Other by way of letting-be; this is love’s creative freedom. For, in responding positively to the call of the Other, I am surrendering the impulse to dominate her, and instead, submit to her as a free and individualized Dasein who is equally concerned with her own Being-in-the-world.  The “yes” of the call to love is a Surrender; a surrendering to the risk, for the potentiality that my responding to the call will itself be rejected, accepted, or ignored. A surrender to the possibility that the Other may not indeed reciprocate-in-kind.  When Dasein says “yes” to the Other, it is, in a sense, at the same time a saying “no” to the comfortable certainties and securities of inauthentic mode of being-in-the-world.

In responding positively to the call, Dasein destines itself in the Other, but, at the same time, destines itself in itself. It does so paradoxically; not through violent self-assertion, domination, or imposing; but through releasement – a self-denial, so to speak, that steps outside the pettiness of our average everyday concernfulness, and remains open and, to a very significant extent, defenseless. Dasein gives itself over; in so doing, it proactively asserts itself by communicating: “I am at your disposal, do with me as you wish!” Dasein releases itself from the pretenses of technological control, the illusion of security and comfort upon which everyday existence becomes so banal and boring, and putting itself at the control of the other; allowing itself (willingnly) to fall into any depths for the Other – sinking far below the depths of the average-everyday so that it can let-the-other-Be; and thus, She becomes the one and only true reality that exists for this Dasein.

Authentic love is impossible without surrender; a surrendering to all that inauthentic Dasein of the one-self flees in the face of anxiety. There is a clear parallel to be drawn between Dasein’s own death and the surrendering that takes place in love. In authentically taking over its Being in recognition of its Being-towards-death, Dasein must respond resolutely and in anticipation of its own-most possibility of impossibility (death). In surrendering to the call of the Other in love, Dasein surrenders the sure-groundedness of all inauthentic being-in-the-world; like death, love dis-closes Dasein as the possibility of a nullity – recognizing its own Nothingness and groundlessness. In responding to the call of the Other, Dasein makes it-self nothing: a will-to-become-nothing and sink into nothing-ness…upon releasement, Dasein no longer understands itself as relating itself to the absolute ground; but rather, holds itself open to the groundless ground. In essence, the all-encompassing and systematic securities of onto-theology give way to the infinite insecurities of being-un-grounded. In effect, the Self willingly delivers itself over to the Other to do as she will – with full recognition (and affirmation) of the vulnerability and difficulty confronting its being. This surrendering of the Self opens up the possibility of the moment of vision; where one is capable of transcending the egoistic self-centeredness of everyday being-in-the-world and actively turns to becoming a We-self. In affirming the Other in the Other-ness of her Dasein, the Self fulfills itself in making its decision – in dis-closing a world heretofore hidden by conventionality and conformity of the “One-self.” As such, a new reality and a new understanding of its existence begins to unfold. The Self, undergoing this transformation, appropriates this moment and allowing it to unfold in an altogether transformed interpretation of its factical existence, and above all, its projected being-in-the-world and thus realizing its Being-in-the-world-together.

At this point the reader may suspect that I have confused love with a form of masochism. But indeed, the possibility of masochism itself is only a manifestation of love taken to its outermost limits. What the two phenomena have in common, and why masochism itself can be understood so clearly as a derivative of authentic love, is that they both envelope Dasein in a complete and enveloping vulnerability.  But whereas the masochist actively pursues pain, humiliation, and subjugation for the purposes of realizing his own interest, and in essence, is subject to the same reification of other derivations of love. The masochist, in seeking a metaphorical annihilation of the Self, and wishing to become an object of his partner, in reality, is constrained within the Cartesian tradition – essentially relating to the Other as a means for his own desires. Moreover, whereas the masochist in a sado-masochistic relationship indeed involves many of the destructive characteristics of authentic love, it lacks the truly creative possibility of transcending the I-self and becoming a We-self. For its part, authentic love has no ulterior purpose, no “reason” for being. It is poetic, and absurd; incomprehensible and un-subjectable to the principle of reason. Dasein willingly subjects itself to humiliation, rejection, subjugation, betrayal with no other motivation than the letting-be of the Dasein of the Other herself in her-self, whatever the consequences may be. I pray that my love is met with a reciprocal affirmation; but I must dwell in the insecurity and sheer uncertainty that becomes manifest that, in delivering myself over, I am at her whim; in letting the beloved be-herself, Dasein hands itself over to the infinite risk of infinite passion, and, in a sense, resigns itself to whatever ontic-possibilites may take shape, no matter how painful, how humiliating, how disorienting and how insufferable they may be. Only by way of holding one’s self open into the groundless ground is love, authentic love, possible at all.

Of Death and Doubt

Heidegger’s destruktion of Cartesian metaphysics stands as one of his most arguably revolutionary and monumental contributions to philosophical thinking in Being and Time. Not only did Heidegger’s critique of Descarte’s epistemology implicate the latter’s divorce of the subject from the world, but also its implications within which the Cartesian subject as self-enclosed and distinct from its world gave rise to generations of philosophical “pseudo-problems,” most notably the problem of the external world and the problem of other minds.

Accordingly, the very problems taken to be the central focus of modern philosophy (vis-a-vis epistemology) are derived on account of the fact that they have taken-for-granted certain assumptions, beginning with the mis-conception of the human-being as first existing and then finding its world. For Heidegger, human being is being-in-the-world and being-with-others; these are the very structures of human existence itself. The problem of Cartesianism is the problem of the positing of the human being as the ontological center, and thus leads invariably to subjectivism.

For Descrates, doubt pushes knowledge to its outermost limits, and thus is the means by which first principles are determined: whatever can survive Cartesian “methodological doubt” thus serves as the foundational principles of philosophical thinking. Thus, when Descartes applies his thoroughgoing doubt to all, he inevitably comes to the conclusion that he, the doubter, must in fact exist — and this is the unquestionable grounds upon which philosophy in the Cartesian (metaphysical) tradition takes as its starting point. Thus, the very act of doubting inevitably proves that the “I” for whom does the doubting — it follows that the “I” must exist (or at least think).

Thus, Cartesianism makes the move from “I think” to “I exist.” But this doesn’t really seem to accord with the phenomena (and Heidegger goes on to show that this is indeed the case) by which the individual “I” must exist in the first place in order to “think.” It is from here that Cartesian subjectivism mis-construes human being (the “thinking substance” as self-evident grounding.

At the same time, Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein’s radical finitude in its authentic being-towards-death does indeed seem to manifest a “destructive retrieval” and creative repetition of Cartesian doubt. But whereas Descarte’s “doubt” was a cognitive method by which all assumptions were put to the wall of doubt in order to see if they could measure up, Heidegger’s thinking as regards Dasein and its mortality.  If we look closely, we can begin to see how Heidegger’s retrieval of Descarte’s epistemological doubt provides the basis for an existential-ontological doubt as understood in “death.”

In Being and Time, Heidegger employs an existential analysis of “death,” by which he takes to signify not merely Dasein’s “ontic” death – that is, the event by which life ceases; but rather, as the ultimate impossibility of all Dasein’s possibilities. Death, then, undercuts all Dasein’s inauthentic certitude with respect to its average-everyday existence. Death, and the accompanying mood of anxiety that precedes an authentic stance on one’s own mortality and radical finitude, dis-closes Dasein as not the ground of its existence, but rather the ground of the “not.” In coming to grips with its ownmost possibility of death, its only certainty, Dasein realizes its possibility of individuating itself by choosing among its possibilities; yet, such decisions always involve a nullification of all other possibilities, since Dasein is incapable of exercising such infinite possibility. Therefore, death opens up Dasein as the ground of a “nullity,” the “not” as possibility rooted in the existential structure of Dasein allowing its possibilities to show themselves as they are in themselves.

It is in the mood of anxiety (Angst) that Dasein is presented with the possibility of coming to terms with its own mortality and finitude. Anxiety, contra fear, is a feeling of free-floating uncanny-ness. It is not something that Dasein can overcome, for it is a part of Dasein’s structure. Heidegger describes the feeling of anxiety with the German word “unheimlich,” which translated means “un-home-like,” or a “not-being-at-home.”  Authentic selfhood can only come about in Dasein’s confrontation and acceptance of its death as its “ownmost” possibility (that which can belong only to that individual Dasein) and as its “uttermost” possibility (the possibility that nothing succeeds death).

The relationship between “death” and “existential doubt” can be understood in two distinct manners.

First, the possibility of Dasein’s death as its ownmost possibility undercuts the myriad certainties and platitudes that make up its average-everyday being-in-the-world. When one experiences the grips of anxiety,  one is confronted with the radical uncertainty of human existence. Existential doubt, as opposed to epistemological or cognitive doubt, permeates through existence itself: casting its shadow over all of Dasein’s existence and de-limiting its possibilities through its ownmost impossibilities. Secondly, just as Cartesian doubt is the means by which the modern philosopher is to determine the unshakable foundations of philosophical thought, so too does death/existential doubt provides Dasein with the possibility of giving meaning to its existence and its world by cutting-through the “idle talk” and “curiosity” of its inauthentic mode of being-in-the-world — opening up (dis-closing) the abyss (abgrund) of Dasein’s existence which lets meaning arise through its existence.

“To be be” is to be finite; and to be “finite” is to be cast in (existential) doubt. Only mortals are besieged by doubt; by the exhausting and inescapable uncertainties of the abyss of human existence.


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.

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 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.

On Transcendance

The most perverse Absurdity underlying all human existence is man’s ceaseless yearning for transcendence; an insatiable appetite to escape the uncertainty and contingencies of Being through transfiguration. Such yearning, so indicative of human being’s restless place in the world, transforms human being on its own accord — giving birth to metaphysical man, and the elevation of  the eternal and infinite over the temporal and finite.

But such transcendence is possible only in non-being, where upon existence is delivered over into nothingness – and human being is reunited with the infinite void from which it came.

Because such transcendence takes place only beyond the horizon closed off by death, human being can never encounter its own transcendence; and accordingly, such encounters are only available as infinite possibility – but never fully belonging to existing human being. In other words, man’s existence is but a process by which he must come to terms with the impossibility of his experiencing his own transcendence.

The path towards the impossible is anticipatory preparation for our own inevitable fatality. By taking up its own concrete mortality, the self undergoes its own form of transfiguration by coming-to-terms with  the absolute and total nothingness of Being generally. Such transfiguration, while falling short of human being’s relentless metaphysical aspirations, nevertheless discloses a glimmer of the infinite by unraveling its own individual existence.

Such transfiguration in existence is primarily revelatory; bringing out into the fore the forgotten knowledge of the tragic – to wit, existence is not the antithesis of death, but rather, is enveloped within, and even dependent upon it. Death, then, reveals itself as  the temple of infinite nothingness, and accordingly, one is able only to comport oneself towards his own existence by re-appropriating his own individual nothingness. This is the closest the individual may come to transcendence — a mode of being that takes full account of its own mortality; essentially, becoming a corpse.