Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard seeks to elucidate the contrasts and interrelationships between what Kierkegaard called the aesthetical and the ethical modes of existence. Like most of Kierkegaard’s writings, Either/Or was not published under his own name but under one of several pseudonyms. The heterogeneous literary style employs lyrical aphorisms, orations, psychological analyses, drama reviews, and philosophical formulations.

In the first part of the work, the aestheticist, who expresses his views through these various literary forms, is designated as A. In the second part, the ethical thinker, who bears the pseudonym of Judge William, is designated as B. In one of his later works, Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (1846; Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1941), Kierkegaard explained the central theme of Either/Or by informing the reader that A is an existential possibility, superior in dialectics and highly gifted in the use of wit and poetic style, who nevertheless remains unable to commit himself in decisive action, and thus never exists at all in the true sense. B, on the other hand, represents the ethical person whose whole life is transformed into inwardness, passion, and commitment.

Judge William elucidates the content of the ethical in the form of a letter addressed to A. The communication of ethical truth demands a form or style that is commensurate with it. Ethical truth is existential and concrete, as contrasted with the theoretical and abstract, and consequently requires for its expression a form that has the personal quality of a dialogue or a letter. This constitutes the form of indirect communication. At the outset, Judge William reminds the aestheticist of the biblical story of the Prophet Nathan and David as a supreme example of this form of communication. King David listened attentively to the prophet’s parable but remained in a state of theoretical detachment. He intellectualized the parable as an objective story that applied only to the mythical stranger. Not until the Prophet Nathan made the application explicit in his statement “Thou, O King, art the man” did David apprehend the existential relevance of the parable. The Prophet Nathan used the form of indirect communication. This is also the form used by Judge William.