Context

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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.

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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

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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 subjectivity is lost.

French philosopher René Descartes shares Hegel’s fate of falling under the Kierkegaardian irony and devastating intellectual lampooning. It was Descartes who provided modern philosophy with Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore, I am”) for its foundation. Now either the “I” that is the subject of the cogito refers to a particular existing human being, in which case nothing is proved (If I am thinking, what wonder that I am!), or else the “I” refers to a universal pure ego. However, such an entity has only a conceptual existence, and the ergo loses its meaning, the proposition being reduced to a tautology. The attempt by Descartes to prove his existence by the fact that he thinks leads to no real conclusion, for insofar as he thinks, he has already abstracted from his own existence. Descartes had already prepared the stage for the later Hegel’s identification of abstract thought and reality. Contra Descartes, Climacus is ready to defend the claim that the real subject is not the cognitive subject, but rather the ethically engaged, existing subject. In both Descartes and Hegel, he finds that cognition and reason have been viciously abstracted from the concrete particularity of existence.

Existence and Individuals

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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.

Becoming

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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 finished.” And so there was another postponement—of the System, and of my homage.

System and finality are correlative concepts. However, existence, which is constantly in the process of becoming, is never finished. Thus, an existential system is impossible. Reality itself is a system, but a system only for God. There can be no system for an existing individual who always stands in the throes of becoming.

As existence involves individuality and becoming, so assuredly does it involve the future. One exists in a process of becoming by facing a future. Subjective thinkers are passionately and earnestly interested in the time of immediate experience as it qualifies their existence. Time for existing subjects is not a time in general—an abstract, cosmic time that is spatialized through objectivizing categories. Their interest has to do with the time of their inner experience—time as it is concretely lived rather than abstractly known. In subjective thinkers’ immediate experience of time, the future has priority. Their lives are lived primarily out of the future, for in their subjectivity they understand themselves as moving into a future. This future generates uncertainty and anxiety. Tomorrow may rob one of all one’s earthly goods and leave one desolate. Subjective thinkers, when they penetrate to the core of their subjectivity, thus find the uncertainty of life itself. Wherever there is subjectivity, there is uncertainty.

Death is one of the most ethically significant uncertainties of life. Subjective thought discloses death as an imminent possibility. However, for the most part, people devise means of concealing this imminent possibility. They approach the fact of death through the eyes of objective reflection and thus conveniently transform it into something in general. Viewed objectively, death is a general and universal occurrence that befalls all forms of life. Viewed subjectively, death is an imminent uncertainty that pertains to one’s particular existence and that makes a difference for one’s individual decisions. Death is thus apprehended not as a generalized empirical factuality but as a task or a deed. “If the task of life is to become subjective, then the thought of death is not, for the individual subject, something in general, but is verily a deed.” Death, subjectively understood, becomes a task in that it is defined in terms of its ethical expression. It is experienced and appropriated in an anticipatory conception in such a way that it transforms the whole of a person’s life. When death is existentially appropriated, then every decision receives a singular importance. If death is imminent, every choice has infinite worth, and every moment is a unique occasion for decisive action. Death makes a difference for life.

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 individuals are actors as well as observers. They make choices that affect the whole of their lives. They are engaged in action that is decisive for themselves as well as for others. The ethically existing subject is thus of utmost importance; but for Hegelians, who are concerned with the general developments of world history and the meditation of opposites in this world history, the ethical subject remains unacknowledged.

Kierkegaard regarded the existentially decisive act for the ethically engaged subject as not an external action but rather as an internal decision. It is inward passion rather than external consequences that constitutes the criterion of ethical action. The person who does not own a penny can be as charitable as the person who gives away a kingdom. Suppose, says Climacus, that the Levite, who found the man that had fallen among thieves between Jericho and Jerusalem, was inwardly concerned to help sufferers in distress. Let us suppose further that when he met the victim he was frightened at the possibility of robbers nearby and hastened on, lest he also become a victim. He failed to act, giving no help to the sufferer. However, after having left the victim, he was overcome by remorse and hurried back to the scene but arrived too late. The Samaritan had already helped the victim in his distress. If this were the sequence of events, would one not have to say that the Levite acted? Indeed he acted, says Climacus, and in an inwardly decisive sense, even though his action had no external expression.

The Three Stages of Existence

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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 passionate choice. They experiment with love but never commit themselves in marriage. They experiment with thought but never commit themselves in action. A constant flight from the responsibility of decision characterizes aestheticists. Thus they lack the decisive content of subjectivity—inwardness, earnestness, and passion. It is only in the ethical stage that these decisive determinants appear.

The transition to the ethical stage is by way of irony. Climacus speaks of irony as the “boundary zone” between the aesthetical and the ethical. The purpose of irony is to rouse one from one’s unauthentic aesthetical floundering to an ethical consciousness. Irony elicits the discrepancy between the inward and outward, as this discrepancy is expressed in life. Irony makes one aware of the discrepancy between one’s inward lack of wisdom and one’s outward claim of its possession. It makes one aware that one’s outward profession of virtue betrays an inward lack of it. Irony constitutes the first awareness of the ethical, seeks to bring these suppressed discrepancies to light, and thus drives beyond itself to the next stage.

The ethical stage is the sphere of decisive action and self-commitment. The ethical person has resolutely chosen the self and exists in passion and in inwardness. The personality of the aestheticist is dispersed because of floundering in possibilities. The personality of the ethical person is unified or centralized because the individual has been able to commit the self to definite modes of action. However, the ground of this unification and the ultimate source of this commitment is not disclosed until the self apprehends itself in the movements of the religious sphere. Although in tension, the ethical and the religious are so close, says Climacus, that they are in constant communication with one another. It is for this reason that the two stages are often hyphenated and designated as the ethico-religious sphere. The “boundary zone” between the ethical and the religious is humor. The ethical thinker drives beyond the ethical to the religious through the expression of humor, in which there is a protest against the externalization of ethical norms and standards. The humorist is aware of this externalization, which tends to become identified with the religious, contests it as the proper measure, but still is unable to establish a God relationship in terms of religious passion. Kierkegaard’s Frygt og Bven (1843; Fear and Trembling, 1939) incomparably expresses this suspension of an externalized ethics through the movement of faith, exemplified by biblical figure Abraham in the intended sacrifice of his son Isaac. Only when existing subjects have apprehended their relationship to God as a relationship qualified by inwardness and passion do they proceed to the religious stage.

The new determinant that is introduced in the religious stage is the determinant of suffering. Suffering is the highest intensification of subjectivity. In it lies the fullest expression of inwardness. The suffering that is acknowledged in this stage, however, must not be confused with the poetic representations of suffering peculiar to the aesthetical stage, nor with the reflection about suffering that is always qualitatively different from the fact of suffering, nor with suffering as a simple outward ethical manifestation. Religious suffering is an expression of an inward God relationship, like that of biblical figure Job, which remains opaque to the aesthetical and ethical consciousness.

The religious stage is internally differentiated by two levels of existence—religiousness A and religiousness B. Religiousness A is the religion of immanence. Religiousness B is the “paradoxical religiousness,” that in which the qualitative distinction between God and humanity is disclosed and God’s presence in time is revealed in the paradox of Christ. The distinction between A and B also expresses the corresponding distinction between guilt-consciousness and sin-consciousness. Guilt, properly understood, is a determinant of religiousness A; sin is a determinant of religiousness B. Guilt is a disrelationship of the subject with the self. It points to an internal fissure within consciousness that results because of an alienation from the individual’s absolute telos. It is still a movement within immanence. In religiousness B, guilt becomes sin. The disrelationship of the subject with the self is now apprehended as a disrelationship with God. The existing subject can acquire a guilt-consciousness through the purely human movement of dialectics in which he or she understands the self as alienated from the self in the process of becoming. However, sin-consciousness requires a disclosure by God so as to reveal to humanity that guilt is at one and the same time an implication of sin. The pagan can have no consciousness of sin. Sin-consciousness emerges only in the subject’s awareness of the self as existing in a disrelationship with God. This God is a God who has entered time and history.

It is thus that religiousness B finds its supreme expression in Christianity, with its teachings of the “Absolute Paradox” or “Deity in time.” As the “paradoxical religiousness,” religiousness B affirms a qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is wholly and utterly transcendent to the temporal order. Thus, religiousness B breaks with religiousness A. There is no natural kinship between the eternal and the temporal. Thus, the advent of eternity in time is disclosed as a paradox. Christ is the Absolute Paradox who reveals God in time, makes one aware of one’s sin, and calls a person to faith and decisive commitment through which sin is overcome.

In his analysis and description of the religious stage as the crown and culmination of the three stages (which must be understood not in terms of temporal sequences of successive development, but rather in terms of copresent qualifications of subjectivity), Kierkegaard makes his central intention quite apparent. The leading question that concerns Climacus is already put to the reader in the introduction: “The subjective problem concerns the relationship of the individual to Christianity. To put it quite simply: How may I, Johannes Climacus, participate in the happiness promised by Christianity?” It is significant that in the appendix, “For an understanding with the reader,” the question is reiterated: “Now I ask how I am to become a Christian.” This is indeed Kierkegaard’s central question, posed not only in Concluding Unscientific Postscript but in all of his other writings as well. Explaining his own perspective as an author, Kierkegaard informs his readers in his book Synspunktet for min Forfatter-Virksomhed (1859; wr. 1848-1849, The Point of View for My Work as an Author, 1939) that underlying the whole of his literary work is the central concern of how to become a Christian—a task that is extremely difficult in Christendom.

Bibliography

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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 philosophy. The editor’s introduction places Kierkegaard in historical context, relating him to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and others.

Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard’s “Fragments” and “Postscript”: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus. Atlantic City, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983. An analysis of the two books that Kierkegaard wrote under a pseudonym in which he reveals much of his religious philosophy. Evans’s book is basically a commentary on the two books by Kierkegaard.

Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A study that asserts the philosopher developed his ideas in response to his own personal struggle with the Danish church.

Hannay, Alastair, and Gordon D. Marino. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. The sixteen essays in this volume look at Kierkegaard’s contribution to philosophical, theological, and spiritual issues. Contains bibliography and index.

Lowrie, Walter. Kierkegaard. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1970. This is the definitive biography of Kierkegaard, written by one of the most prominent translators of his writings. Traces Kierkegaard’s life chronologically, providing a list of dates for major events and publications. Also includes a helpful fifteen-page synopsis of Kierkegaard’s works.

Pattison, George and Steve Shakespeare. Kierkegaard: The Self in Society. New York: Macmillan, 1998. This volume presents twelve essays from the 1995 meeting of the Kierkegaard Society of the United Kingdom. These essays challenge the notion of Kierkegaard as an extreme individualist.

Rae, Murray. Kierkegaard’s Vision of the Incarnation: By Faith Transformed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Rae, chaplain at the University of Auckland, examines Kierkegaard’s view of the Incarnation. His sympathetic interpretation contrasts with that of many other commentators. Contains an extensive bibliography.

Ree, Jonathan, and Jane Chamberlain, eds. Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1998. The nine essays in this work attempt to determine the role of Kierkegaard’s work in philosophy and religion in modern society. Includes index.

Sontag, Frederick. A Kierkegaard Handbook. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1979. A systematic approach to Kierkegaard’s philosophy, which Kierkegaard himself avoided. A study of major concepts that provides a companion reader to the student of Kierkegaard.

Stack, George J. Kierkegaard’s Existential Ethics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977. An explanation of the ethical concepts in Kierkegaard’s existentialism. This volume examines the philosopher’s connection to the developing philosophy of nihilism and helps readers understand how his personal struggles affected his philosophy.

Walker, Jeremy. Kierkegaard: Descent into God. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1985. Walker examines Kierkegaard’s remarks on the importance of Socrates, discusses his ethical positions, and attempts to reveal the effect of personal sorrows on his philosophy. The title refers to the philosopher’s difficulty in explaining exactly how a person becomes a believer in God.

Watkin, Julia. Historical Dictionary of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2001. A handy aid to the study of the philosopher’s work.

Westphal, Merold. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987. A discussion of different aspects of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Chapter 6, “Kierkegaard and the Logic of Insanity,” is a lecture-essay that discusses the difficulty in understanding many of Kierkegaard’s concepts.

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