Tagged: Kierkegaard

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.

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.

Thoughts on Reading Kierkegaard

I was recently re-reading Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, when I came across this gem in the “Diapsalmata”::

In addition to my numerous other acquaintances I have still one more intimate friend—my melancholy. In the midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have had—no wonder that I return the love.

I’ve always enjoyed Kierkegaard, ever since I first encountered his works when I was an undergraduate. More recently, I’ve begun reading him again after taking a prolonged break. But no matter how long it’s been, there’s this feeling I get when I start reading Kierkegaard after having not done so for some time, especially The Sickness Unto Death and Either/Or, where I feel as if I’m reconnecting with an old, lost friend. Some thinkers have the power to express more than the mere articulation of an idea through their work. This is what separates the “thinker” from the mere academic philosopher. True philosophy gives rise to a feeling as if the author is speaking directly to you as an individual, and gripping you at the very core of your being.

Heidegger certainly had a sense of this. In the Introduction to Metaphysics, he grapples with the question, “What good is philosophy?”

It is entirely correct and completely in order to say, “You can’t do anything with philosophy.” The only mistake is to believe that with this, the judgment concerning philosophy is at an end. For a little epilogue arises in the form of a counterquestion: even if we can’t do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it? – M. Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics.

Kierkegaard’s thought has a way of making you view yourself, and the world, from an entirely different perspective; while at the same time rejecting any grandiose attempt  at constructing an all-encompassing system or world-view in the vein of Hegel and other contemporaries. To be sure, reading Kierkegaard involves a lot of work. He’s got a very idiosyncratic style and prose that sometimes makes it difficult to understand exactly what he’s trying to get at. But I find it helpful if the reader always tries to keep in mind the phenomena Kierkegaard is trying to explain, and the rest will (somewhat) follow. For me, the end result from reading Kierkegaard, just like Heidegger, is well worth the time and effort of a careful and studious reading.

I think a lot of people who have never been properly introduced to Kierkegaard’s thought may be put off by his Christianity, which undeniably plays a fundamental role in his philosophy. I’ll be the first to admit that this was my first obstacle. I’ve never counted myself as a “believer” of any kind. But taking seriously what Kierkegaard has to say doesn’t require one to be a Christian or believer of any kind to grapple with the existential issues that Kierkegaard raises. And in fact, I do think it’s possible for people who consider themselves atheist or agnostic to still find Kierkegaard’s works both enjoyable and worth the effort/time. Naturally, there are some works which will definitely be more appealing to non-christian readers, including his treatment of dread/anxiety, the self, and freedom; whereas others may be too entwined in Kierkegaard’s Lutheran theology to have much meaning (but still interesting, nonetheless). .


Kierkegaard’s Self – Diagram

I thought a visual aide would be helpful for illustrating the complex structure of Kierkegaard’s Self from The Sickness Unto Death. Here’s a simple (and somewhat childishly constructed) diagram I’ve created:

A human being is 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 is the relation’s relating itself to itself. 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 (p. 13)


Note: The column on the left [infinite, eternal, possibility] would fall under the category of “soul,” or “psyche.” The column on the right (finite, termporal, necessity] would correspondingly be summarized as “body.” Thus, the Self is the relation between mind(psyche/soul) and body relating to itself.


Kierkegaard on the Self

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.