LECTURE ON SOREN KIERKEGAARD (1813-1855)

With brief notes on Hegel, Socrates, and Heidegger

 

I. HISTORICAL CONTEXT: "Golden Age" of Danish literature and thought

A. RELIGION

1. Orthodox Lutheranism characterized. by split between life and doctrine, faith and works, with emphasis on faith and doctrine at expense of life and works. Scholastic orthodoxy. Local pastor--representative of the Crown and in addition to pastoral duties, collected taxes, took census, administered military levies, kept register of births, deaths, marriages, and convirmations, supervised and inspected local schools, supervising relief for the poor, and afer 1841, serving as chairman for the Local Council. Often also the largest independent farmer in the parish. Often the most visible and most resented social superior of the peasant.

2. In 17th Century in Germany, there had been reaction against one-sided religious orthodoxy, a "pietist" movement which stressed both passionate religious inwardness and serious striving to make one's life

3. In later 18th & early 19th century a "rationalist" or "enlightenment" Christianity predominated

4. A "neo-pietism" resurgance in 19th century, which developed into political movements and raise the question. of relation of religion to politics. A rural "awakening" movement--"divine assemblies" led by young laymen, usually artisans and small-scale independent farmers. A new individualism and self-assertiveness of the peasantry, as traditional hierarchical and collective society was breaking up.

5. These social changes meant new economic and social independence but also a new sense of loneliness and desire to preserve part of the old communal identity. This took form in the lay religious societies. The "awakenings" were community events.


B. THOUGHT AND LITERATURE

1. RISE OF LIBERALISM. Holstein monarchy was fragmented into four assemblies. Copenhagen became a center of moderate liberal political activity. Pushed policies of more frugality and businesslike methods in the royal management of the state. A younger generation, typically university students, was more outspoken. Maintained that it was time for middle classes to rule. A leader--the fiery Ohla Lehmann.

2. A countercurrent of conservative opinion, including Bishop Mynster, who for a long time Kierkegaard followed and respected.

3. As all this went on, many literary figures arose, leading this mid 1800s to be called a "golden age" of Danish literature. Kierkegaard was part of this golden age. (We want to remember that 3/4 of the people were peasant working the land who read no more than the Bible and were largely excluded from all this ferment.

4. Kierkegaard's youth.
Copenhagen in 1836. A relatively sophisticated city which was culturally a colony of Germany and always slightly behind the latest trends. Kierkegaard was 23. Father faised him in atmosphere of stern devout Lutheranism. Home was a gathering place of religious and civic leaders of the city, to discuss and argue the great issues of the day.

Kierkegaard rejected the bourgeois life his father planned for him and that his elder brother Peter chose. Hung out with young rebels later known as "Romantics". Pondered the life of Byron, dead only a dozen years, who was a brilliiant poet, a cripple, an outsider, whose life was tormented by broken love, persistent melancholia, and a terrible secret which he would not reveal. His life had a depth and content which contrasted with the tiresome and superficial repetition of bourgeous life. Among the many other Romantic rebels in Germany was Heinrich Heine.

Kierkegaard was influenced by Socrates. Saw himself as taking a similar stance in relation to bourgeous society as Socrates had taken to the Sophists.

5. Kierkegaard had met Regine Olsen in 1837 shile visiting friends. She was 14. Three years later she agreed to marry him. The engagement was a social event. Then suddenly he broke off the engagenment and within days was on train to Berlin. Biographer John Douglas Mullen thinks it was to get on with his larger task, which had nno place for marriage, but apparently he remaine deeply in love with her until his death.

 

RELATION TO HEGEL (1770-1831) AND SOCRATES. Hegel had declared around 1830 (?) in his History of Philosophy that the "mental turning point" in the history of philosophy lay in Socrates' announcement that the truth of the objective world lay in the thoughts of the subjects who comprehended it. The thinking subject was, for Hegel, Socrates' central idea.

2. In Socrates' observations regarding self-reflecting subjectivity, consciousness is identified as basically self-consciousness, and the self re-projects through universal principles its ideas as identical with the objective world. Socrates' mode of discourse carried him into collision with the self-certainty of others. The meeting of ascertained ignorance (Socratic ignorance) and unexamined opinion produced often ironic results. Socrates used this irony to draw out the other and assist him or her in self-education. These methods were so closely bound to his life that they constituted a way of being a person rather than a system of knowledge.

(Socrates was skillful enough to enter the assumed world of the others unreflected consciousness, where abstract ideas dwelled. Then he succeeded in making those abstractions concrete. This often provoked others to reflect and change their ideas.)

HEGEL called the change, the animation of thinking which came out of Socratic dialogue, becoming. He viewed becoming as the esential movement of the thinking person. It is the activity of self-conscious reflection in which selfhood is being continually distinguished in the act of appropriating knowledge. In Hegel's view, Socrates educated others to the realization that the truth of being was Becoming. The truth of the objective world was located in the reflection of subjectivity. Once having made that discovery they would make themselves as subjectively identical with the Good. This would lead to a universal from which morality could be derived.

(Socrates does not produce a doctrine or final morality from this movement of Becoming. He leaves such determinations to the thinking of each person.)

Kierkegaard emphasizes Socrates' point that ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. He does not tie him to conceptions of right and wrong, as Hegel did. Thus he frees his interpretation from the imposition of a system. Kierkegaard converts Hegel's notion of becoming to his own purposes.

6. Wanted to do battle against styles of living and subjective truths which were illusions.

7. Kierkegaaard ultimately declared open warfare against an Establishment that deliberately confused the categories of religion with those of politics and society. (Compare that to certain elements of our society today.)

 

KIERKEGAARD'S THOUGHT. We may call Kierkegaard the founder of the "philosophy of existence.'
1. Proposed that truth lies in subjective knowing rather than presumptions of objectivity, and that true existence is achieved by intensity of feeling. To the "objective thinker" he opposes the individual, unique, subjective. By becoming lost in our presumed knowledge we have forgotten what it is to exist.

2. The existent individual (a) is in infinite relationship with himself and has an infinite interest in himself and his destiny. (b) Always feels himself to be in becoming, with a task before him.(3) Is impassioned, ispired with a passionate thought. He calls this "the passion of freedom."

3 . Did a dissertation on"mastered irony" which he considered an indispensible tool for evaluating one's life. "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." Mastered irony is a technique you must understand if you are to communicate a subjective truth , a truth which will change the way a person lives.

4. PASSION is the quality of striving to come into being; it is the process of becoming. The kind of change involved, with is a suffering, is teporal, and the ideal striven for is imagined as perfected and completed. But the person striving to realize that passionately held ideas finds the finite conditions of human existence accentuated.

5.""An objective uncertainty held fast in...the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual...but the above definition of truth is an equivalent expression for faith.

6. Truth, for Kierkegaard, is not a "thing" but a stance in relation to the world--a life posture. When he says "truth is subjectivity," is is so only insofar as the subject brings so much passion together with his thought that the synthesis will be an actual event. Without passion there is no movement for the existing thinker. Passion is the affirming motive of development, the willingness to undergo and hence suffere the change of becoming. Passion raises the question of what move one, what moves the self through its developmental actions. It is similar to what Karen Horney calls "wholeheartedness" in living.

Be careful here: He is not speaking of a passionate commitment to entrenched beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and habit patterns, but to a passionate commitment to the quest of finding truth even when it shatters one's entrenched beliefs etc.

7. RISK AND UNCERTAINTY. Each decision is a risk. Person feels himself surrounded by and filled with uncertainty. Nonetheless he decides. There are real possibilities, and any philosophy which denies them is oppressive, suffocating.

8. The existent will ceaslelessly strive to simplify himself, to return to original and authentic experience.

9. ANGUISH: When Kierkegaard uses this term he compares it to dizziness, as a revelation of the possibilties which lie beyond.

10. Kierkegaard's existentialism was religious. The existent must always feel self in presence of God and reintegrate into Christian thought this notion. (This is of course quiet different from the atheistic existentilism of Sartre, but the fundamental existential attitude is nonetheless the same.)

11. THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH (written first 5 months of 1848)
(a) ENGAGEMENT. Genuine study is engaged, rather than an "indifferent" scholarly detachment that is actually "inhuman curiosity." To be engaged is not to be at a distiance. It realtes to the "reality of the personality" and involves true heroism, which is a "daring entirely to be oneself, this particular individual person, alone before God."

Kierkegaard reminds us that our severest difficulty is not that we have a self and do not remain loyal to it, but that often we cannot even locate within us a genuine self worthy of such consideration.

We may lose the self and turn it to exterior activity as a camouflage for its interiaor emptiness.

(b) The sickness unto death is a sickness of the spirit, which leads ultimately to the death of the spirit, It is a misrelationship within the self. Also called despair. (Within Christian categories as sin.)

By contrast, the true self is spirit, a self-reflective or self-conscious relationship between necessity and possibility, finitude and infinity, body and mind. The self is that this relationship between two elements of a synthesis can reflect on itself.

12. Basic forms of despair:
(1) SPIRITLESSNESS. To be unconscious that one has a self--that one is a spiritual and not merely a physical or mental-physical being. To fail to realize that one is capable of reflection, that one is a synthesis. Often characterizes the philistine bourgeosie--members of the comfortable urban middle class, more likely to be of the world of business.

(Bourgeois philistinism operates witn the boundaries of shrewdness with which it tries to accommodate "the possible." Calcuslation, self-protection, where business-like methods presumably are trasnferred into the life of the spirit, with preddictibly deadly results. Spiritless person is ignorant of having an eternal self). This type of person is the specialized product of Christian culture: the cautious, respectable, unruffled, middle-class Christian gentleman."

(2) ENCAPSULATION. (AWARENESS THAT ONE IS A SELF BUT WISHING, DESPAIRINGLY, NOT TO BE THIS SELF). The self wants to escape the self that it is aware it is. The despair of weakness. The more consciousness one has of one's condition, the less the church and official Christian ideology satisfy, at the same time the greater is the real but unfilled spiritual need opened up.

(3) (Highest level of despair): THE DEPAIR OF DEFIANCE. Self is aware of being itself and wishes, despairingly, to affirm itself as the human self it is, but without at the same time recognizing the relatedness and ultimate dependence of that human self on God. A despairing superiority to the world with its strife and duties. (Or if you are not religious in a conventional Christian sense, you could substitute the AA language, without recognizing your relatedness to and ultimate dependence on "a power greater than yourself," which may have various overtones and dimensions, including the ecological.

13. Kierkegaard insists that man is in sin and cannot understand the Good because he does not want to and requires God's revelation to show that he is in sin.

14. The capacity to despair is a sign of the eternal in us, the sign of our greatness. The reality of despair is a great misfortune: it is our never-ending, impotent attempt to be quit of our own spirit, our connection with the eternal; "an impotent self-consumption."

15. To win health, one must come to the realization that one is spirit and exists, as the individual one is, for God and this "prize of infinity is never won except through despair."

 

HEIDEGGER: (1889- )

1. Viewed himself not as a philosopher of existence but of Being. Only people truly exist. Animals live, objects simply are, but do not "exist." To truly exist, we must quit the inauthentic sphere of existence. Usually, due to our own laziness and the pressure of society, we remain in an eeryday world, where we are not really in context with ourselves--the "domain of everyman." Where we are not conscious of our own existence.

2. We bcome conscious of our existnce only through certain experiences, like that of anguish, which put us in the presence of the background of Nothingness from which Being erupts. This is an active Nothingness which causes the world which erupts from it to tremble to its foundations. Being detaches itself from this nothingtness by a kind of rupture.

3. The moment when there are no more possibilities, no more "ahead of us" is the moment of death.
Existence is essentially ecstatic.

a. When we truly exist, we are always open to the world.

b. This includes being in immediate relation with other existents. Even when we think we are most alone, we are not separated from others.

(c) Further, to exist, we go beyond ourselves toward the future. Each of us is always planning, oriented toward our possibilities, projecting ourselves into the plan. Thus it is that we are always filled with anxiety or care. We are always concerned with something yet to come. Being, so far as we seize it in existence, is care and temporality. More transcendences

(4) We can also transcend out of nothingness; and from "particular things that are" toward Being.

(5) We are not only our future, but also our past. Our possibilities are not abstract ones, but are embedded in specific conditions which we have not chosen. We move ceaselessly from our future to our pastl, anticipations to memories. The Present (the "third ecstasy of time) is in some sense the juncture of our future and our past.

6. In a sense, Heidegger's philosophy can be viewed as a negation of Kierkegaard's individualism. It declares that there is no subject-object dichotomy and the classical idea of the Subject must be exploded to reveal us always outside ourself. Important in Heidegger, the affirmation of our unity with the world.

7. Through Anguish we reach the general conditions of existence, or what Heidegger calls "the Existentials." Kierkegaard always remains in the sspecific subjective reality of the existential.

8. For Heidegger, we must shoulder our human condition and assert our destiny. Not remain in the stage of anguish (or nausea as Sartre calls it). We take upon ourselves our own destiny. The only way to Being is through existence.

Heidegger and Sartre are both interested in ontology -- the systematic study of Being. Kierkegard is not. He contents himself with existence, and in that sense is more purely existential . (Personally I do not find the term ontology useful. Most people don't know what it means, and the use of the somewhat awkward term does not seem to add any new dimensions to my insight about things. But perhaps I am simply slow at grasping its utility.)