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John D. Mullen (essay date spring 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mullen, John D. “Between the Aesthetic and the Ethical: Kierkegaard's Either/Or.Philosophy Today 23, no. 1/4 (spring 1979): 84-94.

[In the following essay, Mullen questions the usual reading of Either/Or that positions the aesthetic and the ethical as two progressive stages of life.]


In the following paper I would like to call into question what seems to be the accepted way of reading S. Kierkegaard's Either/Or. ([4]) This interpretation can be developed in the following way. First, Either/Or depicts the first two stages of a journey of the spirit similar in logical structure to Hegel's Phenomenology, with the exception of the “leaps” between stages. Second, that the ethical is the second stage and is therefore “closer” to the “final” religious stage than the aesthetic. Third, that since Kierkegaard's own views coincide with (a version of) the religious stage, the views of the ethicist are “closer” to those of Kierkegaard than those of the aesthete and thus Judge William's diagnosis and criticism of A in Either/Or represents the correct (meaning Kierkegaard's) diagnosis and criticism of the aesthetic life. Fifth, that it is unequivocally accurate to claim that the life of the aesthetic is lacking in freedom, spirit, self-discipline, self-knowledge, willed-despair, a concept of good and evil, and a life view.

I believe that each of these five propositions is incorrect. Against these I would place the following. First, Either/Or depicts the most general features of the two life views predominent (in Kierkegaard's mind) in 19th century Europe, and thus the two modes of life from which one would be likely to enter the religious mode. Second, that there is no ranking of the two modes; and in particular, that the ethical is not a stage through which a former aesthete must, will, or even is likely to pass, before realizing the religious. Third, that the Judge's description and criticism of the mode of life of A is not Kierkegaard's. Finally, that it is not unequivocally accurate to describe the life of A in the terms of number five above.

I will argue for the second way of reading Either/Or by first reconstructing in a relatively systematic way the life views of the aesthete and the ethicist. This will bring out the overlooked fact that each is relatively complete unto itself, and isomorphic to the other in the sense that for every major concept and principle of one (e.g., freedom, the necessity to will despair, etc.) there is an analogously functioning concept or principle in the other. This fact has been overlooked partially because the commentators, having accepted the principles of the accepted reading, have allowed Judge William to provide the explication of A's views, rather than constructing the explication directly from A's writings.1 The existence of this isomorphism shows that the Judge's criticisms of A's life are false from A's point of view, while true from A's point of view if directed at the Judge himself. The explication of the Judge's views will bring out the manner in which his criticisms of A rely upon his Hegelian philosophy rendering it impossible for these criticisms to represent the views of Kierkegaard. This suggests the following conclusion about the place of Either/Or in Kierkegaard's authorship. Kierkegaard was never interested in criticizing ideas as such, but only ideas as functioning in life. He notes in Point of View that the pseudonymous authorship with the addition of Postscript describes two ways of becoming a Christian, “… viz. away from the aesthetical in order to become a Christian … the other way … viz. away from the System, from speculation, etc., in order to become a Christian …”. ([5], p. 42) Either/Or provides the touchstone for this authorship by providing a description of the two staging platforms (not stages) from which one would be likely to enter the religious life. Volume two describes the realization in ordinary life of the principles of Hegelian philosophy, which...

(The entire section is 97,275 words.)