Introduction to Kierkegaard: The Existential Problem

“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.” (The Sickness Unto Death)

As a philosopher, Kierkegaard was extremely interested with ideas such as freedom, anxiety, despair, and what it means to live as a genuine human being. His thoughts of these topics were of great interest to the 20th century existentialists, such as Heidegger, Camus, and Sartre, which is why he is often called the “father of existentialism”.

According to Kierkegaard human beings are a synthesis of opposites. One of these pairs of opposites he called the infinite and finite, writing:

“For the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the limiting factor, and the infinite the expanding factor.”(The Sickness Unto Death)

The infinite corresponds to possibility, to the capacity to envisage new thoughts and ideas, bring into existence new creations, change oneself and choose from innumerable potentialities.

The finite corresponds to actuality or necessity, to the concrete here and now, to one’s reality as a definite something in the world.

There is a compulsion to completely absorb oneself in either the finite or infinite, for in doing so one abandons the responsibility of being a self.

To lose oneself in the finite is to live a life which sees change as virtually impossible. In this situation such an individual frequently becomes depressed, slavish and dependent on others, imprisoned in what they perceive as an inescapable environment where no alternatives exist. Such individuals often find safety and security by assimilating themselves into social, institutional, or familial networks, finding it

“too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”(The Sickness Unto Death)

To lose oneself in the infinite is to live as though life is nothing but a series of endless experiments; different paths are sampled and personalities tried on for size but no enduring choice or commitment ever made. One who is lost in the infinite is obsessed with who one can potentially become, yet in reality never becomes anything, let alone a self:

“Now if possibility [infinite] outruns necessity [finite], the self runs away from itself…The self becomes an abstract possibility which tries itself out with floundering in the possible, but does not budge from the spot, not get to any spot, for precisely the necessary is the spot; to become oneself is precisely a movement at the spot.”(The Sickness Unto Death)

To be a self requires that one balance these opposing tensions, in a manner unique to one’s individuality. As it is far easier to lose oneself in the infinite or finite, this task of becoming a self requires vigilance, constant effort, and much courage, making it the greatest task there is:

“…to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession made to man, but at the same time it is eternity’s demand upon him”(The Sickness Unto Death)

The weight of this task elicits anxiety. There are no manuals which guide one in the process of becoming a self and no external standards of success. On the path to selfhood one must “walk without meeting one single traveler” (Fear and Trembling). The individual is left alone in this balancing act of human existence, and a dizziness and disorientation rises up as he stares into the abyss of possibilities which confront him.

“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss . . . Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” (The Concept of Anxiety)

Far from signifying a pathological state which one must strive to alleviate, Kierkegaard posited existential anxiety as an essential requirement on the path to selfhood:

“I will say that this is an adventure that every human being must go through – to learn to be anxious…Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” (The Concept of Anxiety)

Anxiety is a response to the awareness of one’s freedom, of one’s power to gaze into the yawning abyss of possibilities, and through an act of choice actualize one of those potentialities. It is a response to the recognition that one is free to choose from possibilities, and therefore ultimately responsible for oneself and one’s future. This awesome sense of freedom and responsibility is apprehended as simultaneously attractive and repulsive, an ambivalence Kierkegaard called “dread”:

“In dread there is the egoistic infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms and fascinates with its sweet anxiety”(The Concept of Anxiety)

Lacking the strength and courage to endure the continual anxiety required to walk the path of selfhood, most strive to alleviate their anxiety by choosing, on some level of awareness, not to be a self. Such a choice vaults one into a state of despair, a “sickness of spirit”, characterized by the attempt to rid oneself of oneself, and thus do away with the responsibility of being a self:

“To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself—this is the formula for all despair.” (The Sickness Unto Death)

Despair takes many forms, and is not necessarily accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and depression. In fact, Kierkegaard thought one could seem in “the best of health…precisely when the sickness is most dangerous.”(The Sickness Unto Death). Such an individual would be wholly unconscious of their despair, and thus in a most dangerous position. For a sickness can inflict the most harm when one is unaware that one is even sick:

“The despairing man who is unconscious of being in despair is, in comparison with him who is conscious of it, merely a negative step further from the truth and from salvation. [U]nawareness is so far from removing despair, that, on the contrary, it may be the most dangerous form of despair. By unconsciousness the despairing man is in a way secured (but to his own destruction) against becoming aware—that is, he is securely in the power of despair.”(The Sickness Unto Death)

While there are numerous ways in which an individual, through various forms of self deception, hides from his awareness the fact that he lacks a self, Kierkegaard believed “despair over the earthly” to be “the commonest sort of despair”. Despair over the earthly arises when an individual attempts to compensate for their lack of self by latching their identity onto something external in the world: for example, a job, a relationship, one’s family, wealth, or social status.

If the individual loses this external good, they will likely think that the accompanying misery and emptiness they feel is a result of such a this loss, not realizing that an inner hollowness was there all along: they lacked a self and tried to compensate by projecting their identity onto something external and finite, an attempt which is bound to fail every time:

“An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to get rid of himself. For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it. But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar.”(The Sickness Unto Death)

If the individual in misery over an earthly loss has his fortune’s reversed, he will return to his previous state of health, and his despair will return into the darkness of his unconscious.

“If outward help comes, then life returns to the despairer, he begins where he left off; he had no self, and a self he did not become, but he continues to live on…”(The Sickness Unto Death)

Kierkegaard held despair to be a miserable sickness; for the individual in such a state “There is a blind door in the background of his soul, behind which there is nothing.” Yet along with being “the worst misfortune and misery”, he maintained that “to be able to despair is an infinite advantage” – for it implies that one potentially has a self. The key factor is whether one is conscious of their despair or not. “The more consciousness, the more intense the despair”, but the more consciousness the closer one is to eradicating despair, and “willing to be that self which one truly is.”

As a young man at the age of 22, Kierkegaard was struggling with the tensions of human existence, falling into the depths of nihilism and despair. At this time he wrote in his journal of finding

“joy and refreshment in contemplating the great men who have found that precious stone for which they sell all, even their lives…proceeding on their chosen course without vacillating…absorbed in themselves and in working toward their higher goal”. (Soren Kierkegaard)

Finding this “precious stone” or “higher goal” became for Kierkegaard an all consuming passion, and the pathway to selfhood which he recognized as absent in the lives of too many:

“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I must know…What matters is to find a purpose…to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…This is what my soul thirsts for as the African desert thirsts for water.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

The truth which Kierkegaard was thirsting for was not an abstract truth divorced from his existence as an individual. Such “objective” or conceptual truths, are useful if one strives for detached intellectual or scientific understanding, but when it comes to what it means to be a human being and how to successfully navigate the existential tensions of life, such “objective truths” are meaningless:

“…what good would it do me”, wrote Kierkegaard, “if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognized her or not?” (Soren Kierkegaard, Journals)

Instead the truth Kierkegaard was seeking was subjective or existential truth, a truth embodied in the “inwardness” of the individual, expressed through one’s passionate commitment to a certain idea or style of living:

“….the inward deepening in and through existing, is truth” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments)

While objective truths are known, subjective truths are lived and experienced. With respect to subjective truths,

“If a person does not become what he understands, then he does not understand it either.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

Kierkegaard observed that practically everyone’s life was stricken with some form of despair, engaged in “styles of living” inadequate for genuine selfhood. Through his voluminous writings he sought to convince his readers they lacked subjectivity or ‘inwardness’, that their values, attitudes, and inner relationship with reality was destitute, fertile for breeding despair.

Kierkegaard’s psychological sense was keen enough to recognize that this was no easy task – he could not directly condemn the way of life of his readers, as most react to such attacks with defense mechanisms, justification tactics, and even anger. “Direct communication” would be of no help in this project; Kierkegaard understood a more subtle form of communication was needed:

“No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed..That is, one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

Kierkegaard utilized a technique termed “indirect communication”. Instead of explicitly condemning faulty ways-of-life, and imposing his own ideas about how to live on the reader, he bypassed their defense mechanisms by stimulating them to think for themselves about their life choices, while also making them aware of the alternative life-paths available. In this sense if the reader came to see the barrenness of his inner mode of being, and decided to proceed along a different path more conducive to a genuine existence, it would appear as if such an “awakening” was initiated solely by the reader himself: 

“To stop a man on the street and stand still while talking to him, is not so difficult as to say something to a passer-by in passing, without standing still and without delaying the other, without attempting to persuade him to go the same way, but giving him instead an impulse to go precisely his own way. Such is the relation between one existing individual and another, when the communication concerns the truth as existential inwardness.” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments)

Kierkegaard employed indirect communication through the use of pseudonyms. In the majority of his works he does not write under his own name, but through the guise of various fictional characters who speak from the perspective of one immersed in a given life-view, often even attempting to justify a way of life Kierkegaard himself thought inadequate for selfhood.

“In the pseudonymous works there is not a single word which is mine. I have no opinion about these works except as a third person, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments)

Writing as different fictional characters living out certain ways of life enabled Kierkegaard to force his readers to “try on” different life-views as one would try on clothes, detaching themselves from their own lives and immersing themselves in different potentialities. Such a technique, of becoming objective towards oneself and subjective towards other styles of life, Kierkegaard called “mastered irony”:

“Most men are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others, frightfully objective sometimes – but the task is precisely to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

Armed with indirect communication, Kierkegaard analyzed what he thought to be the three general styles of living, or “spheres of existence”: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. These spheres, and their appropriateness for the eradication of despair and cultivation of a self, will be summarized in the next video.

To conclude this video and bridge into the next, it is crucial to note that Kierkegaard was passionately committed to the idea that everyone must walk the path to selfhood as a ‘solitary’ or ‘single’ individual. Yet he recognized that most are too cowardly to endure the anxiety and dread this elicits, and therefore that most will seek to lose their self and sense of responsibility by immersing themselves in a crowd of others:

“for every single individual who escapes into the crowd…flees in cowardice from being a single individual.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

As Kierkegaard wrote, it is far easier to “emasculate oneself, in a spiritual sense”, and cling to the herd “in order to be at least something”, than to stand alone, heeding the eternal demand “to become oneself”. For one of the greatest fears in the individual is that ultimately they are alone, and therefore solely responsible for their life:

“Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household. A person keeps this anxiety at a distance by looking at the many round about who are related to him as kin and friends, but the anxiety is still there.”(The Concept of Anxiety)