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.
All self-reflection is accompanied by a feeling of disgust. The more one comes to understand oneself as a “self,” and the ensuing responsibility of becoming his own self, the more one is inclined towards despondency and inaction – and ultimately, a loathing of the self.
In other words, the more a self becomes aware of itself, through its structural involvement in and towards the world, the less capable it is of enjoying itself and the world it finds itself. “Ignorance is bliss” is a truism, but it’s all the more illustrative in light of the fact that the heightened awareness that accompanies the understanding of having a self to begin with brings with it the burden of responsibility and choice. But such choice, insofar as one must first and foremost exercise the power to choose to become a self at all, takes place in a nullity.
To become a self is an exercise in subjectivity, and necessarily entails the responsibility of determining yourself on account of your own self, through your affirmative stance towards your being-in-the-world. At the same time, the requisite choice to become oneself is subject to the perpetual flux and contingency of the universe, and thus will forever be exist within the broader context of the nothingness.
At its height, consciousness of the self raises the concrete individual self to the highest level of understanding: namely, through the existential-structures of lived space, time, corporality and relatedness. But all knowledge, and especially knowledge of the self, exists in a direct inverse relationship to the ability to live with oneself.
How is one to be excited about anything at all when one cannot even look at one’s self in the mirror without giving in to complete and total despondency?
There is a freedom in self-loathing that “normal,” “healthy,” and “vivacious” people will never taste…it’s the freedom of being honest with one’s own self.
We are all familiar with objective, or “clock” time. But beneath this – in fact, what makes our perception of objective time possible in the first place, is our underlying reflectiveness of existential or “lived” time. Existential time is our self-awareness of relational time. It’s the feeling as though time is racing when we’re parting with a loved one at the airport; where every second seems as though it is only a fraction of itself, and we find our self “out of time;” or, on the other hand, it’s the sensation that time has come to a near-complete halt as we impatiently await our turn in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
Existential time is primordial; it is our temporal way of being in the world. The three-fold structure of time itself (past, present, and future), is the horizon upon which the Self is able to become aware of itself as a self. Indeed, the entirety of the landscape of our being is so inter-connected that without it we could not even have the most basic or pre-ontological understanding of our own being.
Existential time is always experienced as relational. In this sense, we can think of our past as always changing. In one sense, we represent our past to ourselves in the form of memories… some may stick with us forever, while others are nearly forgotten and distant. Yet, my relation to these memories has a definite and direct impact on my mode of being in the world. How I interpret my past will play itself out in my comportment towards the world and the Others. Yet at the same time, I am constantly re-interpreting my past as a result of simply existing.
Kierkegaard makes reference to this phenomenon when he describes the experience of feeling “eternity in Time” in the “Instant.” This refers to the “Instant” (which should not be confused with any definitive measurement in objective/clock time) when an individual commits himself to his own defining commitment, which in turn gives his life meaning to him. From that point forward, the individual not only sees his present and future possibilities through his defining commitment – but he also reinterprets the collective moments of his past through the lens of his new-found defining commitment. To illustrate, when one falls in love with someone, and that other person becomes their defining commitment, they re-define themselves through their commitment, including their own past, which may now look as though it was all meaningless and pointless up to the point in time they fell in love.
As the Self experiences the new possibilities of being the world, it re-interprets itself, and is always already engaged in a continuous process of “becoming itself.” Accordingly, one’s own reflective awareness of existential time is constantly changing on account of the fact that the Self, which is always anticipating itself ahead of itself into the future, is living through the possibilities disclosed through attunement and expectation. In this way, we commit ourselves to having certain expectations and “hopes” with respect to the future on account of our mood or attunement towards the past which in turn shapes our perception of future possibility.
As human beings reduced to “social animals,” our entire existence is divided between two disharmonious worlds: the public, and the private.The public constitutes our shared or collective world of intelligibility. This is the structure of existence that enables us to be with others. The public gives each and every particular member his or her tradition, language, and structures the framework by which he or she participates in the whole of being with others. It establishes and gives content to the cultural paradigms that give meaning to what one is and what one ought to do. The public determines the values, beliefs, priorities, and make-up of all its constituent members (particulars). As such, the public is only understood through its generality, for the public is an abstraction — and thus never deals with the concrete, but only with the general. Though the public is not itself universal, for there are as many ‘publics’ as there are communities stretched across the planet, It nevertheless presents itself as the universal, a sort of perverted “universalized relativism.” Without the “public,” culture, civilization, and society could not be. Nothing would be intelligible beyond the purely subjective self insofar as nothing could be raised to the level of discourse or understanding between the Self and the other. The public operates through the Crowd. The Crowd itself is the public made manifest in the world. It is composed of “everyone and no-one,” and thus is never responsible, never accountable, and is omnipotent in its ability to defend and perpetuate the public. The public stands on the shoulders of the Crowd, the latter playing a critical role in preserving the former’s hegemony and safeguarding it against collapse. Yet despite its sheer breadth and pervasiveness, continuously shaping our average everyday experiences, the public itself is never fully in view; for it withdraws itself into the background of such everyday experience. Therefore, the public only becomes distinct at the horizon — often times creating the barriers between that which is meaningful within the framework of the public, and that to which the public is hostile (the private, the idiosyncratic, or the exceptional). Yet despite this seeming withdrawal into average everyday experience, the public does, in special circumstances and situations, make itself felt. This always only occurs in moments of “break-down,” that is, when the public world is called into question or otherwise “challenged” by the individual (more on this below). Whenever the public is sufficiently challenged, it will respond accordingly through the Crowd. The Crowd, as the knight of the public, steps in to set matters straight by exercising its awesome power to induce even the most resilient or obstinate individual to resign himself and fall back. The public also brings itself into full view when it is forced to undergo some substantial change or adaptation — yet again an unconscious effort that takes place for the purpose of perpetuating the domination of the public. This is the process by which the public absorbs and gives new meaning to that which once challenged it; in other words, a process in which a practice or way of being-in-the-world is transformed via the Crowd from something viewed from the public perspective as unacceptable, into something acceptable (again, from the point of view of the public) This takes place at the level of the Crowd — in which particular practices, especially those which challenge or threaten the hegemony of the public, are subsumed, transformed, and often imbued with new “public” meaning — thus now becoming a part of, rather than set against, the public. Yet even before a breakdown can occur, the public perpetuates its dominance through the process of leveling. Leveling is the process by which all that is exceptional, different, unique, and individual is flattened. The leveling process is yet just one of the peremptory powers of the Crowd to eradicate threats to the public. It is the procedural expression of all things being reduced to the lowest common denominator. In the West, leveling has found its greatest expression through the transformation of cultural paradigms in the wake of the Age of Reason, with its most acute expression in the Enlightenment. This paradigmatic shift re-centered focus for cultural development to the mass man and population. As such. through the birth of mass-man, the public took on its greatest role ever — and finds greater expression in the spirit of the mass-man than any age before. The private, on the other hand, is the subjective reaction to the public. It exists only insofar as there is a real existing human self that defines itself (gives meaning to its own self) always in a way distinct from that of the public or the Crowd. The private is thus understood through individuation and self-determination. That being said, not every particular necessarily has a private world — for only an individual self is able to undergo the process by which it creates the private through existence. Whereas one may refer to a particular human being, a particular chair, or even a particular dog or pair of shoes — the word “individual” would be wholly inappropriate in the aforementioned context. Rather, and individual only exists through its own existence — as defined by taking a stand and defining itself through its own relation to itself. Hence, we can say that the world is composed of a people, and the ‘people’ is made up of particular persons — yet there are only a handful of individuals. In this sense, there is an undeniable distinction between a “human being” and an “individual.” This point can also be expressed in a simple syllogism:All individuals are humans, but not all humans are individuals; or, all x is y, but not all y is x. Thus, the private world exists only insofar as there is an individual Self that may be said to exist within its existential structure of intelligibility. To simply have a private world is to always be at odds in some manner or form with the public. For the individual who has constructed for himself his own measure of intelligibility that defines his own relation to himself and the world must do so by doing violence (at least to some degree) to the domination and hegemony of the public. That an isolated and single individual Self can threaten the amorphous and anonymous “public” demonstrates the power of the individual Self to transcend the petty groundlessness of the Crowd. Nevertheless, the individual Self who defines himself through the private will always be in conflict with the Crowd (and correspondingly with the public). The Crowd will attempt to continuously bring pressure down upon the individual — a pressure so immense, and more often than not, so unbearable that few find themselves strong enough to resist. In light of this pressure, the Self must invariably lose — for the individual is incapable of successfully challenging the Crowd directly. Accordingly, the individual Self will be forced to choose either to (a) flee from the private; or (b) reinforce the private through resignation and solitude. Those endowed with a greater sense of resistance will be inclined towards the latter, whereas those who feel incapable of resisting the pressures of the Crowd will fall back into conformism. This is why precisely why there is no necessary connection between becoming an individual self on the one hand, and happiness or a contended life on the other. In fact, the more one commits himself to becoming a self, the less and less likely he will find himself capable of feeling happiness. This is the cost of becoming more aware of oneself and exercising one’s freedom and responsibility to determine one’s own self at the expense of the naive stupidity of the interchangeable members of the Crowd. Only the latter are capable of knowing happiness, yet the true selves, though they will never be happy, will, for what it’s worth, find meaning and identity in their suffering — if only to ward off the temptations of self-annihilation. To be sure, a third alternative is also possible — the Crowd, in all its subterfuge and under the appropriate circumstances, will subsume the private into the public, and thus render the latter’s threat to the former null and void. Typically, this will have the effect of undermining whatever threat the private posed to the public by way of flattening whatever was original and unique and reducing it to the level of that vulgar baseness so synonymous with the public.
“Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself… If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward of boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey.” ~ A. Schopenhauer, On the Vanity of Existence.
Over the course of their lifetime, most human beings will spend a considerable amount of their time, energy, and resources engaged in a vain effort to stay the onset of boredom. Nowhere is this more true than here in the industrialized West, where modern technological conveniences and the vast processes of social leveling have left us with an overabundance of idle time. As a result, we rarely have to do anything for ourselves, and thus most of us are inadequately suited for even imagining what a worthwhile life would be… as such, boredom becomes seemingly ubiquitous.
What’s unique about boredom is the manner in which it reveals the “vanity” or emptiness of “naked existence” as such. That’s because most of the time we’re actively engaged in something and thus become distracted from our own inconsequential existence. When we’re simply going through the motions of being in the world, the hopeless vanity of it all is hidden from view. We become wholly preoccupied and engrossed with whatever it is we’re doing, or whomever is stealing our attention for the moment: whether it’s going to class, finding a career, caring for our children, pursuing sexual satisfaction, or any myriad other pursuits we may have in mind.
At some stage or another, we all become bored. The most widely experienced type of boredom is that of the everyday variety. This type of boredom is a feeling of growing weariness towards whatever it is that we’re focused on. Even if this or that situation or entity initially engaged or interested us, it now no longer does so. I become bored with it; whereas the it may be comprised of any particular entity. The phenomena of everyday boredom is that of being left in a kind of limbo — where time itself seems suspended and we actively seek out new stimulation to relieve us from our becoming bored.
The second stage of boredom is more inward and thus centered on the Self’s relation to itself. Thus, the Self is not becoming bored with any particular entity, which may or may not retain its original interest to the Self; but rather, the Self is bored with itself. This is the experience of feeling as though one is weary of being oneself. It’s not my situation, or this or that particular entity that fails to capture my attention or spark my interest — but my Self. While at the same time this type of boredom is more depressing and can give rise to deep feelings of despair over one’s Self, it is also more revealing. It is the Self’s disclosure (to itself) that it is bored with being-in-the-world.
The third variety of boredom is the deepest, and thus may be called “profound boredom.” This type of boredom represents a total breakdown of the Self’s being-in-the-world. Heidegger summarized this level of boredom as simply, “one is bored.” In this level of boredom, the Self becomes an “undifferentiated no one,” and all entities and relations are stripped of meaning. I become no-one; my self a non-self. My relation to the world is transformed into a negative relation relating to the utter meaningless totality of being-in-the-world. It is a relation to un-relatiedness in the world — and so my stance on my self and my world is one of pervasive indifference.
In profound boredom, the Self suffers a complete and total breakdown in its relation to the world: all meaning and intelligibility fall by the wayside, and all choice and decision rendered null. The world and the entities therein are re-cast in dreary shades of grey; and existence itself is drowned in an unyielding and monotonous void.
As its possibilities withdraw, the Self becomes resigned to the meaningless indifference in which it finds itself. It is at this stage that the Self is afflicted with the meaninglessness of his existence. The projects and commitments which gave the Self its identity (its sense of self by way of relating to itself) are left unrelatable and devoid of meaning. This creates a crisis of the Self in the utter and total annihilation of its intelligible and meaningful relation to the world.
Profound boredom is also marked by its ability to give rise to suicidal ideation. Total annihilation becomes the only plausible solution to escape the miserable suspension of the Self in the world. Robbed of all intelligibility and grounding, but only to the extent that the Self previously upheld such illusions to begin with, boredom then transforms into abysmal despair or melancholy. The failure of the Self to find any grounding — and the hopelessness of ever attaining meaningful relations to the world and one’s place in it — quickly reveal the preference of non-existence over existence. Whereas Heidegger relates in What is Metaphysics that boredom reveals the “whole,” but not the nothingness (this is the exclusive province of angst) of Dasein, boredom, at least in its most extreme and profound manifestation, does have a way of breaking down “worlds” in a way that, in some respects, is similar to the role “death” plays in angst — revealing Dasein’s total vulnerability to world collapse.
The most meaningful difference, however, may be the way in which death discloses Dasein’s own freedom to choose to accept an authentic relationship with its own death and thus live a life of dying. Profound boredom does not disclose freedom, it breaks down the Self’s ability to relate at all. Whereas Heidegger wants to ascribe an activist response to the indifference of boredom (see What is Metaphysics, Basic Concepts), this seems highly questionable in light of the ‘total’ despair of sweeping indifference which overcomes in the third and highest stage of boredom.
The difference between man and other entities is the former’s sense of temporality. In other words, man’s own self-awareness of himself as existing — or, as Heidegger puts it: Dasein is the being for whom Being is an issue for it. Other entities, be it a dog, raccoon, elephant or a tea-pot, are incapable of projecting their being into the future; or recalling their own past. Lower species live exclusively in the present; for the very moment in which being finds itself. Only man can experience himself in time, and thus never truly static; but rather in a constant state of becoming himself through his finite possibility.
But possibility is understood in contrast to actuality. The traditional positing of the Self-as-substance (i.e., Descartes, Kant, substance ontology generally, etc.) places actuality over possibility; an emphasis of the present-now over the to be/becoming. Substance ontology, in turn, reduces the individual into little more than universalized substance — an entity (albeit, a thinking entity), composed of the same indistinguishable “stuff” (spirit; mind; soul; will to power; etc.). It was this aspect of traditional metaphysics that Soren Kierkegaard, and later Martin Heidegger, went to great lengths to overcome.
Above all, focusing on the present-substance completely misses what it means to be-in-the-world. This analysis simply ignores, or is incapable of taking account of the very fact that we are always in the world relating to it. Heidegger chooses to focus on our “average everydayness” because it is our situational mode of being in the world. In other words, the traditional metaphysical (substance-ontological) view reduces existence to presence; here-now. In the end, it attempts to ground essence without taking into account our existence is to completely disregarded the finiteness of being.
Thus, the temporal self is, in its existence, its own being-towards-possibility: actively involved and always ahead of itself for which its own being matters. We are constantly relating ourselves to the world through ourselves (the self-referential self). Thus, our existence, the relation in which our being is an issue for us. As self-relating entities, we are always encountering the future of possibilities — and if our existence is authentic — then it is our ownmost possibilities.
Properly understood, the Self is neither substance nor statically present — but rather, exists through itself as the positive relation to the world as a projection of constant change always already emerging into possibility [not actuality]. Thus, actuality is becoming possibility — always in a state of constant projection in which each individual Self is always a step in front of itself. It is in this process that each Self comes to understand its own Being: the Being of the Self is the disclosure of the “ability-to-be.” The ability-to-be one’s Self is thus the primordial task of any individual Self insofar as he is said to exists. Likewise, any “what” it means to be able to be must always already be preceded by the “who” that is answering it. To put it more succinctly, there can be no “what” I am without there first and foremost being a “who” I am.
But this is far from the end — for every Self, in its relation to itself through its possibilities, is always already undercut by an “ultimate” possibility — death. Death, understood not as mere cessation of biological life (what Heidegger called mere ‘demise’), but rather as world collapse. My death is my possibility of no more possibilities; my possibility of not being able-to-be. Coming to terms with one’s death as truly “my death” becomes possible when we experience certain existential orientations — fundamental moods that concern the “entirety of a person’s situated existence.” These moods highlight a breakdown of average everyday “being-in-the-world,” and include anxiety/angst, boredom, and despair. Whenever the Self is delivered over to one of these moods, the Self is confronted with the terrifying possibilty that all of its possibilties are subject to a vast and omnipresent vulnerability to total destruction and collapse. This is the revelation of the nothingness of the Self; the abyss of meaninglessness that every Self finds itself situated in while being-in-the-world.