62. Kierkegaard’s Problem and Solution, Part 2

In the first part of my overview of Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy, I argued that his fundamental problem is the wide-spread distintegration of the self or inauthenticity. Kierkegaard’s answer to the problem of inauthenticity can be simply stated: we must develop an integrated self.  To understand this answer we must first understand (1) Kierkegaard’s view of the self and (2) how passionate action plays a role in integrating the self.  After we have these elements in place, we can examine which form of life will help us passionately act.


Kierkegaard’s view of the self is interesting insofar as it tries to avoid two popular, yet philosophically problematic, views of selfhood.  One view of the self says the self is a substance with a fixed nature of some sort.  Usually, substantial views of selfhood view the self as a true unity not made of parts.  This unity abides despite the various changes the self undergoes. The other view says the self is not a unity at all but rather a bundle of memories, sensations, experiences, feelings, and so on.  On this view, there is no underlying unity beyond the mental contents that come to be and pass away.

Kierkegaard steers between these views by taking something from each and forging a new synthesis.  He wants to argue that, on the one hand, the self begins with very little unity and can remain in a state of fragmentation and yet, on the other hand, the self can move towards a high degree of unity over time.  Thus the self is essentially a process that may or may not unfold its potential to be more and more integrated.  The existence of this potential suggests we don’t begin in complete fragmentation.  There must be some degree of unity if there is to development towards more unity at all. But widespread disintegration shows we can fail to reach any significant degree of actualization. To clarify the nature of this process, we can turn to Kierkegaard’s claim that the “self is a relation which relates itself to its own self.”[1]  This means the dynamic process of selfhood will unfold in accordance with some sort of relation and will be conscious of being and developing the relation—it will “relate itself to its own self”.  But what kind of self-conscious relation are we talking about? A dynamic relation between necessity and possibility. Let’s look at these terms:

  • Necessity represents all those facts we need to face about ourselves: where we were born, our color, our gender, our race, acts committed, etc.  In general, necessity is our past.  It is the finite or limited aspect of who we are.
  • Possibility represents our ability to give new direction and meaning to past events.  We can, as conscious beings haunted by possibilities, see ourselves differently and choose new courses of action not determined by the past. So possibility is future-oriented and appears to us in the form of fantasies, hopes, imaginings, and dreams.  It is the infinite or unlimited aspect of who we are.

For Kierkegaard, the development towards more and more integrated selfhood is marked by a self-conscious, responsible, and continuous integration of necessity and possibility over time. Such constant, self-conscious integration is what he calls freedom; and freedom is lost any time this mode of integration ceases. Freedom is not abstract and indifferent; it is always freedom from some necessities to the realization of certain possibilities. Once certain possibilities are realized then they become necessities that must be faced and from which new possibilities can be considered.

Passionate Action

According to Kierkegaard, free, integrated selfhood is maintained through passionate action. Action occurs when we choose to actualize a possibility.  However, the act is not the outer deed or the behavior that anyone can see.  Rather, action is the inner moment when we choose to cancel one possibility or possibilities and actualize some other possibility. As he puts it: “The actuality is not the external action but an interiority in which the individual annuls possibility and identifies himself with what is thought in order to exist in it.  This is action” (CUP, 339).  Kierkegaard describes the process of actualizing a possibility in action as a leap that cannot be explained in cause and effect terms insofar as it is free (CUP, 342). If we could explain the leap then we would discover previous determining causes of our actions thus removing freedom. Now some see this notion of an ultimately inexplicable leap as a weakness of Kierkegaard’s account of selfhood and action.  Yet he would respond by saying that the desire for an explanation of freedom “is a stupidity that can occur only to people who are comically worried about finding an explanation” (CA, 50).  The comedy arises because one who seeks an explanation of the inexplicable is trying to do something logically impossible.  How can freedom be determined?  What is more, such a person seeks an explanation that would remove personhood by reducing us to entities without the ability to choose. Thus Kierkegaard goes on to warn us that we shouldn’t be “indifferent to the fact that the [comic] explanation [of freedom] is so inhuman that no person who has lived or who wishes to live can understand it, because it also proposes to explain him” (CA, 186).  The man who claims that the leap of freedom is an illusion, if correct, removes his own freedom and thus his personhood. Kierkegaard would no doubt say that arguing with such a man would be uncanny insofar their thesis, if true, implies that one is talking to an “artificial product” that may move as an object determined by physical forces but certainly doesn’t act as a subject in accordance with the choices of spirit.

Now this transition from possibility to actuality, this leap of freedom whereby we choose to enact something in the world, is indeed a decision: it is an annihilation of a possibility.[2] Such annihilation occurs in the moment and marks an intersection of the possible and the actual. This intersection is conceptually incomprehensible but can be existentially experienced as passion: “Only momentarily can a particular individual, existing, be in a unity of the infinite and the finite that transcends existing. This instant is the moment of passion” (CUP, 197).  And again: “An existing person cannot be in two places at the same time, cannot be subject-object.  When he is closest to being in two places at the same time, he is in passion; but passion is only momentary, and passion is the highest pitch of subjectivity” (CUP, 199).

‘Subjectivity’ is a word that Kierkegaard uses to denote something “very plain and simple, namely, that truth is for the particular individual only as he himself produces it in action” (CA, 138).  There are many truths about ourselves and the world that we can examine objectively, that is, examine without our feelings, commitments, and concerns.  Kierkegaard doesn’t deny that objective truth exists or that we can examine it with a high degree of objectivity.  But his philosophy, as we have seen, begins with a desire to avoid inauthenticity.  So holding beliefs, ideas, and truths without being serious about them and acting on them would be to think (and perhaps say) one thing and do another.  “Subjectivity’ is therefore a word that denotes not what we believe but rather how sincerely we act on what we believe.  When he says “truth is for the particular individual” he doesn’t means that all truth is relative or that we can believe whatever we want; he is only pointing to the need to act on our truth claims in ways that lead to integrated selfhood rather than disintegrated hypocrisy.

So we see how action and passion come together: passion is found in those moments, those leaps, wherein one annihilates possibilities in order to act on what thinks, believes, and/or knows to be true. And we see how passionate action—something Kierkegaard also refers to as “earnestness” or “inwardness”—serves an integrative function in the self by preventing our inner words and outer deeds from being out of synch. And this function has a surprising effect; for it is through passionate action that I know what I really believe to be true. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it is through passionate action that I become self-conscious: “self-consciousness, therefore, is action, and this action is in turn inwardness” (CA, 143).  Passionate action is the way I reveal myself to myself and others by grasping where I stand.  I can give my word and enter into a public sphere of mutual self-respect and duty. Thus the more we are passionately acting on our beliefs the more we are self-consciously integrated and free. It seems like this ground breaking account of action has given us the solution to unlocking the troubling problem of disintegration.

 The Loss of Freedom 

Why, then, is this solution to integrated selfhood so hard to achieve?  Kierkegaard gives a truly original and disturbing answer to the question: integrated selfhood is so rare because people fear the continuous task of self-integration, that is, they fear freedom. Kierkegaard knows this answer will sound strange to many. He writes: “Perhaps this may seem strange talk to some people, for who does not want to be free?  However, the way in which a person speaks about such things indicates that he has no conception of the crisis that arises when freedom is to be brought into unfreedom.  Wishing to be free is an easy matter, because wishing is the most paltry and unfree of all performances” (CA, 203). To be sure, we eulogize freedom and celebrate it as one of the world’s greatest goods.  But do we really want it in this existential sense?  To be free is to self-consciously relate to one’s past and, based on this past, consider possibilities, choose from among them, and enact new courses of action for the future.  This integrated process is to be feared because of the anxiety it causes: it is overwhelming to face all the possibilities that bubble up and threaten the so-called solid obligations, practices, and beliefs that make up ones necessity.  Indeed, existential anxiety differs from fear insofar as it is not directed toward a fearful object but towards the very notion of being able to do something else (CA, 49). For Kierkegaard, the existence of anxiety proves we are free: “If a human being were a beast or an angel, he could not be in anxiety.  Because he is a synthesis [of necessity and possibility], he can be in anxiety; and the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man—yet not in the sense usually understood, in which anxiety is about something external, about something outside a person, but in the sense that he himself produces the anxiety.” (CA 155) The possibilities associated with anxiety are both attractive and repulsive: we want to embrace them in order to expand, grow, choose, and act; but we also fear them and seek ways to stunt our development and evade the burdens associated with it. After all, by acting we must take responsibility for our necessity and deal with the guilt that often accompanies such responsibility. Nonetheless, most of us realize it is unacceptable to deny freedom.  Thus we have a profoundly ambivalent relation to anxiety and thus our freedom.  This ambivalence typically leads people to try and escape their freedom rather than face their profound anxiety in order to be great.

There are two basic strategies available in the escape from freedom: reduce the self to necessity or deny necessity and seek to live in possibility. Let’s consider some extended quotations from his book The Sickness Unto Death that make these points clear. To understand Kierkegaard’s points here is to be in a position to explain a great deal of human behavior.

The Aesthetic Stage

First, we will see how he describes what he calls the “despair of possibility” wherein someone is losing—or completely loses—their foothold in necessity:

“Just as finitude is the limiting factor in relation to infinitude, so in relation to possibility it is necessity which serves as a check. When the self as a synthesis of finitude and infinitude is once constituted, when already it is then in order to become it reflects itself in the medium of imagination, and with that the infinite possibility comes into view. The self is just as possible as it is necessary; for though it is itself, it has to become itself. Inasmuch as it is itself, it is the necessary, and inasmuch as it has to become itself, it is a possibility.

Now if possibility outruns necessity, the self runs away from itself, so that it has no necessity whereto it is bound to return—then this is the despair of possibility. The self becomes an abstract possibility which tries itself out with floundering in the possible, but does not budge from the spot, nor get to any spot, for precisely the necessary is the spot; to become oneself is precisely a movement at the spot. To become is a movement from the spot, but to become oneself is a movement at the spot.

Possibility then appears to the self ever greater and greater, more and more things become possible, because nothing becomes actual. At last it is as if everything were possible—but this is precisely when the abyss has swallowed up the self. Every little possibility even would require some time to become actuality. But finally the time which should be available for actuality becomes shorter and shorter, everything becomes more and more instantaneous. Possibility becomes more and more intense—but only in the sense of possibility, not in the sense of actuality; for in the sense of actuality the meaning of intensity is that at least something of that which is possible becomes actual. At the instant something appears possible, and then a new possibility makes its appearance, at last this phantasmagoria moves so rapidly that it is as if everything were possible—and  this is precisely the last moment, when the individual becomes for himself a mirage.” [3]

Those who seek to live in possibilities are living in what Kierkegaard calls the aesthetic stage.  In this stage one lives for new and interesting moments, seeks to avoid repetition and boredom, and, above all, shuns any and all commitments that might fix the self.  No genuine moral concerns exist in the aesthetic way of life which is seeks an eternal childhood of playful possibility.  Such a way of life will, despite its cleverness and irony, be afflicted with anxiety over losing one’s potential to be an integrated self.  In some cases the anxiety may lead to despair and a leap into a new way of life. But in many cases the aesthete lives on until death with a fragmented self, little or no personality, and a complete lack of individuality.

The Ethical Stage

Now let’s look at the “despair of necessity” wherein someone reduces himself to necessity and losing the liberating powers of possibility:

“The lack of infinitude means to be desperately narrow-minded and mean-spirited….not by evaporation in the infinite, but by being entirely finitized, by having become, instead of a self, a number, just one man more, one more repetition of this everlasting Einerlei [sameness]….But while one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by “the others.” By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself, forgets what his name is (in the divine understanding of it), does not dare to believe in himself, finds 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.” [4]

Those who seek to embed themselves into the so-called necessities of life typically fall into the ethical stage for Kierkegaard.  Unlike the aesthete who lives to avoid boredom and seek interesting moments, those in the ethical   stage embrace morality and enthusiastically take on those “normal” roles of society and see the world as pre-made for them.  They love their fate and thus achieve a fixed status and degree of personality the aesthetic stage can’t provide. Yet this embedding of the self in the norms and customs of society is an escape from freedom nonetheless: it is an escape from the constant effort and risk involved in self-consciously integrating necessity and possibility over time through passionate choice. As result, there will be, if enough reflection is present, occasions to not only find one’s so-called ethical way of life humorous but also become aware that there is simply no way to be good on one’s own: self-reliance is simply not enough. This can led to a sense of resignation that can open one up to the last stage on life’s way, the religious stage. See part three for more…

[1] Here are the opening lines to his book Sickness Unto Death where the self is defined: “Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. 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. Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self.”  See http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=2067&C=1863

[2]See Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 74.

[3] This quotation is from part one of his book The Sickness Unto Death and is taken from http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=2067&C=1863

[4] Ibid.

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