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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Kierkegaard and Existentialism

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard (1840)
Soren Kierkegaard used the word “existential” to refer to a new way of looking at the problems of human existence. The word appears in the long attention grabbing title that he gave to his 1846 work Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: A Mimical-Pathetical-Dialectical Compilation, An Existential Contribution.

Sarah Bakewell, in her book At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, offers the following insight into Kierkegaard’s existentialist treatment of man’s place in the world:
Kierkegaard was well placed to understand the awkwardness and difficulty of human existence. Everything about him was irregular, including his gait, as he had a twisted spine for which his enemies cruelly mocked him. Tormented by religious questions, and feeling himself set apart from the rest of humanity, he led a solitary life much of the time. At intervals, though, he would go out to take ‘people baths’ around the streets of Copenhagen, buttonholing acquaintances and dragging them with him for long philosophical walks. His companions would struggle to keep up as he strode and ranted and waved his cane. One friend, Hans Brøchner, recalled how, when on a walk with Kierkegaard, ‘one was always being pushed, by turns, either in towards the houses and the cellar stairwells, or out towards the gutters’. Every so often, one had to move to his other side to regain space. Kierkegaard considered it a matter of principle to throw people off their stride. He wrote that he would love to sit someone on a horse and startle it into a gallop, or perhaps give a man in a hurry a lame horse, or even hitch his carriage to two horses who went at different speeds — anything to goad the person into seeing what he meant by the ‘passion’ of existence. Kierkegaard was a born goader. He picked quarrels with his contemporaries, broke off personal relationships, and generally made difficulties out of everything. He wrote: ‘Abstraction is disinterested, but for one who exists his existing is the supreme interest.’
Kierkegaard’s spirit of rebellion is apparent in his argumentative manner of dealing with the past philosophers. For instance, he disagreed with Rene Descartes’s saying, “Cogito ergo sum.” According to Kierkegaard, Descartes had things back to front. Existence, he insists, is not the result of a logical deduction. Human existence comes first and is the starting point of all we do. To counter G. W. F. Hegel’s theory that the world is evolving dialectically and will eventually become united with the Absolute Spirit, Kierkegaard poses an awkward question: “What if I don’t choose to be part of this ‘Absolute Spirit’? What if I refuse to be absorbed, and insist on just being me?”

In his 1844 treatise The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin,  Kierkegaard says that anxiety is an outcome of the dizzying effect of freedom, of paralyzing possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s own existence. Here’s an excerpt from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety:
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.
Kierkegaard holds that anxiety is a kind of existential paradox of choice, a viewpoint that also features in Jean-Paul-Sartre’s work.

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