Changing How the World Thinks

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Kierkegaard against the herd

Everyone is the exception

21 06 30.Kierkegaard solitude

We all find ourselves to be an island of consciousness. Each and every one of us shares the unique quality of being the single individual. Away from religion or politics, or even the well-known ‘leap of faith’, we must rely on this individuality and maintain a steady, enduring trust in ourselves and our essential Being. This is what makes Kierkegaard the father of existentialism, writes Alastair Hannay.


busyness as unhappiness2 Kierkegaard On Escaping the Cult of Busyness Read more Kierkegaard admits that writing was an escape, a way of getting out of himself. It was therapy and might even be something he couldn't do or be without, a compulsion like a drug, just as those outsiders with no saving talent may resort to narcotics. Kierkegaard was saved by his compulsion, but it brought its own torments. It was only when "productive," that is to say when his writing worked, that Kierkegaard felt "well." [1]

As he later claimed of his production, its unifying topic, the one that had also unified him, had from the very start been the "single individual." It was this "category" that he came to regard as his main achievement and contribution. By sweeping away the scenarios in which our lives blur the nakedness and isolation of the self-conscious beings that we are, Kierkegaard believed his suffering revealed to him what being an individual really means.

By sweeping away the scenarios in which our lives blur the nakedness and isolation of the self-conscious beings that we are, Kierkegaard believed his suffering revealed to him what being an individual really means.

Kierkegaard makes it clear that his theme was not himself, not this particular individual, nor anything that he with his own background can represent, something for which he might seek disciples. "The single individual can mean the most unique of all or it can mean each and every one." [2] The "maieutic [i.e., Socratic or midwifery] purpose" of his writing had been to get hold of the "single individual" that everyone inherently is – despite popular proclamations about our being social animals. We are often told to hide our nakedness and assume that we are not properly human until socially clothed. The "existential" turn in writers, to which brigade Søren Kierkegaard undoubtedly belongs, is to see it in reverse. Our true nature is one of nakedness and need, not just for the means of survival as with other living beings, but more profoundly of a sense of naturalness in being human, something we see in other living creatures, while never reaching that scale of naturalness ourselves.

Clearly enough, there is the sense that Kierkegaard felt far from reaching this naturalness himself. But as a professional misfit he would see that "social animal" has a pathological as well as a natural or anthropological reading. Although it is in human nature to seek company, the trajectory of association is not only consolation but inevitably divisive. Humanity itself, a unified humanity, or absolute humanity, is left in limbo with no natural home or habitat. There are only "identities", individuals in association.

Enlistment in a social genus comes with birth. Either consciously or as a matter of course too obvious to bring to mind, we bear our generic descriptions from the start.

Enlistment in a social genus comes with birth. Either consciously or as a matter of course too obvious to bring to mind, we bear our generic descriptions from the start. As we grow into our societies, we become someone by being something. In Either/Or, Or's protagonist writes of "choosing oneself." There the self to be chosen is the one we find ourselves being when we wake up, to what we are along with others. Birth deals a hand of cards and while to our dying day the values of some remain the same, others take time to develop theirs. There are leanings, temperament, abilities, gender and sexuality, and on top of that or underneath, a variably rigid or malleable social role. So, while some plain ethnic properties recorded in our birth certificates and identity cards stay the same, other properties have their destiny in the future. How we turn out can be our own doing, less or more. Or’s protagonist insists on the latter, and doing so requires a great deal: the "self-aware" individual is not just conscious of being "this definite individual" equipped with "these aptitudes, these tendencies, these instincts, these passions, influenced by these definite surroundings, as this definite product of a definite outside world." No, this individual "assumes responsibility for it all." [3]

That comes close to existentialism but Kierkegaard's reading of "it all" is untypical of that "ism." A simple narrative can explain the origins. A crisis arose in philosophy when theology and the classical ideals of authority broke down, first in the renaissance and then in the period of enlightenment. The reaction was to restore authority focused first in the realm of ideas (idealism) and then in the discovery of natural laws through observation (positivism). Neither were interested in the thinker or the observer as "existing" human beings. Where, in other words, in all these ideas and objective facts are you and I? It is a question we face today when promised a theory of everything: that is to say ‘everything’ except us, which is also to say a theory of no one.

What was once given by theology or classical humanism was transferred in existentialist thinkers en gros to the individual. "Authentic" individuals take personal responsibility for what they become. That they should become members of a harmonious society is left to chance or choice. Opponents spoke of the social benefits of consensus and the commonplace and of a self-improving community under a "we" umbrella. They saw "moral narcissism" in the existentialist ideal of self-seeking authenticity and left soul-searching to artists and dropouts. Existentialists in their turn claimed to be undermining deep-rooted fears that were covered over by complacency and stultifying "herd" thinking.

Kierkegaard seems never to have dropped the religious premise and in his own life there is no evidence of a "leap" of faith. His faith was in something close to what that existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger called an "existential," that is, an essential structure of Being. Not the specific truth of the faithful itself but a faith in existence, something whose absence The Sickness unto Death would diagnose as a form of despair.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript makes fun of the leap by having the famous German Enlightenment writer Lessing decline an invitation from the philosopher Jacobi to join him in taking this "salto mortale" into the eternal that history (time) never reaches. Lessing first admonishes Jacobi for thinking it can be done in company: "When you are to leap you must do it alone, also be alone in properly understanding that it is an impossibility." [4] That is straight talking, but then comes the irony: the reason for his not doing it alone is that his head is "too heavy" and his legs "too old."

Faith in Kierkegaard is less a matter of living as if destined for a better world than of hanging on to this one in the light of what we dare to admit we are still to become.

The Concept of Anxiety uses the leap to distinguish Christianity from both Greek and Judaic religiousness. The two latter assume we live in a perfectible world where imperfections are removed through "quantitative" accumulation. Christianity tells us that the world is inherently sinful: we are "in error" and the source of those life-truths that have to do with perfection have to be taken on trust in an example whose own being (a combination of time and eternity) is beyond our understanding. The leap is not an option that will give you something extra to add to the cards you are dealt at birth. Already in his Philosophical Crumbs (sometimes  Fragments) Johannes Climacus has said that what the "teacher" (Christ) provides in this regard is least of all something "to be passed down like real estate." It is work to be done in the future from a growing recognition that and how one is "in error." [5]

Faith in Kierkegaard is less a matter of living as if destined for a better world than of hanging on to this one in the light of what we dare to admit we are still to become. There is little room here for any kind of leap but a lot for endurance and trust in the way demonstrated by an unquestioning Abraham as he rode silently up the mountain with his son. He kept quiet because whatever he said would make him sound like a lunatic or a criminal.

When things were going well, Kierkegaard would talk of being "once more afloat" with the "machinery in myself again in full swing." [6] When fatigued he was a "steamship with an engine too large for the ship's construction". [1] He realized that his situation was unusual and hardly the point from which everyone should depart on their journey to selfhood, indeed perhaps very few. But that is in itself a good reason to look into the way the working parts came together in a writer whose outsider's position pressed him into the "core of Christianity." [7]

He would agree: "Not only my writings but indeed my life, the intriguing secret of the whole machinery" will "one day be studied..." [1] An extra reason for doing that today is the thought that when the politics of identity and cancel culture are revealed as two sides of the same coin, those whose struggles and suffering have them probe deeper into the human condition may pave the way to a deeper basis for society, one where it is possible to see the point in saying that everyone is an exception, and where resentment and anger find their proper personal context.     



[1] Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, ed. N. J. Cappelørn et al.,Princeton University Press, 2007-2020.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, 1998, "Two Notes"

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, abridged and trans. Alastair Hannay, Penguin Books, 2004, p. 542

[4] Søren Kierkegaard , Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. Alstair Hannay, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 86

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs (in Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs), trans. M. G. Piety, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 162 and 122

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter,  Copenhagen: Gads Forlag, vol. 28, 2013, Letter 88 (1843 from Berlin)

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals: A Selection, trans. Alastair Hannay, Penguin Books, 1996p. 654.

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Charles Blattberg 1 July 2021

Couldn't his decision not to marry Regine Olsen be considered evidence of his having taken a leap of faith?