(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Søren Kierkegaard has been called the Danish Socrates, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript demonstrates his claim to that title. In this work, Socrates is acknowledged as the illustrious Greek who never lost sight of the fact that a thinker remains an existing individual. The Socratic maieutic method, with its use of ignorance, irony, and dialectics, pervades the work.

The Socratic method is used by Johannes Climacus (Kierkegaard’s pseudonym) to elicit from the reader an awareness that truth is subjectivity. The doctrine of “the subjective thinker” stands at the center of this classic, and it provides the pivot point around which all the themes revolve. Subjective thinkers are engaged or involved thinkers, whose thought, directed toward a penetration of their inner consciousness, moves in passion and earnestness. They find in the theoretical detachment of objective reflection a comic neglect of the existing individuals who do the reflecting. Objective reflection tends to make subjects accidental and transforms their existence into something indifferent and abstract. The accent for subjective thinkers falls on the how; the accent for objective reflection falls on the what. Objective truth designates a “what” or an objective content that can be observed in theoretical detachment. Subjective truth is a “how” that must be inwardly appropriated. Truth as subjectivity thus becomes inward appropriation. Truth, subjectively appropriated, is a truth that is true for me. It is a truth which I live, not merely observe. It is a truth which I am, not merely possess. Truth is a mode of action or a manner of existence. Subjective thinkers live the truth; they exist it.

Hegel and Descartes

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

One need not proceed far into the pages of Concluding Unscientific Postscript to become aware that Kierkegaard’s archenemy, against whom his Socratic, ironical barbs are directed, is German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Johannes Climacus finds in the systematized, objective, and theoretical reflection of Hegel’s philosophy a fantastic distortion of truth and an ingenious system of irrelevancy. Climacus never tires of lampooning the system. Hegelians, in neglecting the crucial distinction between thought and reality, erect a system of thought that comically excludes their own existence. They seek to comprehend themselves as expressions of abstract, universal, and timeless categories; thus they lose themselves as concrete, particular, and temporal existents.One must therefore be very careful in dealing with a philosopher of the Hegelian school, and, above all, to make certain of the identity of the being with whom one has the honor to discourse. Is he a human being, an existing human being? Is he himself sub specie aeterni, even when he sleeps, eats, blows his nose, or whatever else a human being does? Is he himself the pure I am I?’ . . . Does he in fact exist?

Hegelians afford an instance of philosophical comedy in which there is thought without a thinker. They erect a marvelous intellectual palace in which they themselves do not live. The subject, in Hegel’s objective reflection, becomes accidental, and truth as...

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Existence and Individuals

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Subjective thinkers emphatically reject the rationalists’ reification of reason, but they in no way deny the validity of thought so long as it is existentially rooted. Subjective thinkers are indeed thinkers who make use of thought in seeking to penetrate the structures of their subjectivity and so to understand themselves in their existence. The nobility of Greek thinkers (particularly Socrates) is that they were able to do this. They existed in advance of speculation and the system. Subjective thinkers are both thinkers and existing human beings. This is a truth, says Climacus, a statement that, deserving emphasis, cannot too often be repeated, and the neglect of which has brought about much confusion. Kierkegaard was by no means an opponent of thought. He insisted only that thought be placed back into existence, following its vicious abstraction by Hegel. “If thought speaks deprecatingly of the imagination, imagination in its turn speaks deprecatingly of thought; and likewise with feeling. The task is not to exalt the one at the expense of the other, but to give them an equal status, to unify them in simultaneity; the medium in which they are unified is existence.”

When subjective thinkers thus make the movement of understanding themselves in their existence, they discover that in the order of reality (as distinct from the order of abstract thought), individuals—and individuals alone—exist. Existence is indelibly individual in character. Kierkegaard’s philosophy is a crusade for the reality of the concrete individual. “The individual” (Enkelte) was Kierkegaard’s central category. It is in this category that he saw bound up any importance that he as a subjective thinker might have. This category was so decisive for his whole literary effort that he asked that it be inscribed on his tombstone (and it was). The human self is not humanity in general. Humanity does not exist; only individual human beings exist. Existential reality resides not in the genus or in the species but in the concrete individual. Universals, like crowds, are abstractions that have neither hands nor feet.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

To exist means to be an individual, but to exist also means to be in the process of becoming. “An existing individual is constantly in process of becoming; the actual existing subjective thinker constantly reproduces this existential situation in his thoughts, and translates all his thinking into terms of process.” Although Hegel in Wissenschaft der Logik (1812-1816; Science of Logic, 1929), had much to say about processes in which opposites are combined into higher unities, his doctrine of becoming is ultimately illusory because it does not understand process from the point of view of concrete existence. Logic and pure thought can never capture the existential reality of becoming, for logical entities are states of being that are timeless and fixed. In the moment that Hegel wrote Science of Logic with the intention of encompassing the whole of reality, he forfeited the concrete becoming in which subjective thinkers find themselves disclosed. In Concluding Unscientific Postcript, Climacus satirizes the Hegelian system:I shall be as willing as the next man to fall down in worship before the System, if only I can manage to set eyes on it. Hitherto I have had no success; and though I have young legs, I am almost weary from running back and forth between Herod and Pilate. Once or twice I have been on the verge of bending the knee. However, at the last moment, when I already had my handkerchief spread on the ground, to avoid soiling my trousers, and I made a trusting appeal to one of the initiated who stood by: “Tell me now sincerely, is it entirely finished; for if so I will kneel down before it, even at the risk of ruining a pair of trousers (for on account of the heavy traffic to and fro, the road has become quite muddy),”—I always received the same answer: “No, it is not yet quite...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

Choices and Action

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In the subjective movements of their engaged existence, subjective thinkers disclose their existence as qualified by individuality, becoming, time, and death. Already in these movements, the pathway is opened for decisive action. The category of decision becomes a centralizing concept for subjective thinkers. In facing a future, existing subjects are called to decision. Thus subjective thinkers are at the same time ethical thinkers. They understand their personal existence as a task and a responsibility. They must choose in order to attain their authentic selfhood. Their essential humanity is not given but is achieved through decision. The greatness of humankind lies in possession of an either/or. This either/or becomes a matter of indifference for the Hegelian. In Hegel’s timeless categories, there is no place for decisive action or ethical commitment.Ethics has been crowded out of the System, and as a substitute for it there has been included a something that confuses the historical with the individual, the bewildering and noisy demands of the age with the eternal demand that conscience makes on the individual. Ethics concentrates on the individual, and ethically it is the task of every individual to become an entire man; just as it is the ethical presupposition that every man is born in such a condition that he can become one.

The objective reflection that is so peculiar to the system transforms everyone into an observer. However, existing...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

The Three Stages of Existence

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Much time is devoted in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to a delineation of the “stages” or “existence spheres”—a delineation that Kierkegaard had already undertaken in two of his earlier works, Enten-Eller (1843; Either/Or, 1944) and Stadier paa Livets Vej (1845; Stages on Life’s Way, 1940). However, for the first time, his writings contain an analysis and description of irony and humor as transitional stages between the aesthetical and the ethical, and the ethical and the religious, respectively.

The aesthetical stage is the stage of experimentation. Aestheticists are those who experiment with various possibilities but never commit themselves in...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Allen, Diogenes. Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1983. The chapter on Kierkegaard examines his time period and its influence on his ideas. The author discusses how Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel influenced Søren Kierkegaard by breaking the hold of the eighteenth century Enlightenment on European philosophy. Also includes the influence of Socrates on Kierkegaard.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Soren Kierkegaard. Modern Critical Views series. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. A collection of essays discussing the importance of Kierkegaard and his...

(The entire section is 595 words.)