Some thoughts about Soren Kierkegaard, from a philosophical angle.
Truth is strange – for in the majority of all those philosophical tomes of thought, there seems to be some sort of self-disgust, an aversion to itself. We can see the truth always “just about to be,” but it never actually coincides with itself. Within reflection, I arrive at an unhappy position, entirely of my own choosing, and find the “state of philosophy” in tattered decrepitude. The agony of thought drains the world of color, and leaves behind splotches of gray, and the bland walls of tedium threaten to envelope me. This seems the revenge of life against my efforts of looking too deeply, into the abyss…
Kierkegaard interjects that with every step take in reflection, you are taking a step backwards from immediacy. This pronouncement seems to carry the implication that reflection can never spur anyone to scale the mountain and find enlightenment at the very peak of truth. Kierkegaard was forever the ironist, and within his writings the anticipation of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is right under the surface. Interestingly, Kierkegaard chose to sign all his books with a multitude of pen names: Constantine Constantinus, Johannes de Silentio, Victor Eremita, and so on. All these pseudo-authors issue forth cryptic and penetrating insights on a wide spectrum of issues: aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics. To Kierkegaard’s credit, his original genius was the transformation of pedantic philosophy into a problem of writing – and he also bequeathed a host of rich categories to existentialism (anxiety, dread, absurdity).
There was an incident in Constantinus’ Repetition that changed the author’s life, for even a speck of dust in the eye is enough to collapse an entire world view. Once the speck irritated Constantinus’ eye, he went to pieces and fell into the “abyss of despair.” Careful readers will immediately notice the allusion to the Gospel of Matthew, and realize that, for Kierkegaard, the world view is Hegel’s systematic metaphysics.
In the early 19th century, philosophy sort of out-smarted itself in the excessive rhetoric of the works of Fichte, Schelling, and most importantly, the tortured language of Hegel, yet Hegel was crowned as the king of all philosophy regardless. Kierkegaard was intimately familiar with Hegel’s works, and he also knew that the keystone of Hegel’s entire historical system of logic, the Aufhebung was the great dragon he must overcome. Aufhebung is translated into English as “sublation,” meaning that the contradictions in history are always overcome at once, but at the same time, also preserved by the elevation to a higher plane of thought.
You may say that this Aufhebung doesn’t seem so dangerous and nasty, and fail to see why Kierkegaard found it utterly dangerous. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in his book Search for a Method, laid out his path to existentialism, as well as the back door that allowed him to leave. Most scholars will insist that Kierkegaard was the founding father of existentialism, but Sartre actually demolishes this notion.
Kierkegaard argued that, despite its omnivorous power, Hegel’s philosophy overlooks the “unsurpassable opaqueness” of the lived experience. To this, Sartre didn’t object, and noted that Hegel was very absolute in his optimism, and probably too much so. Hegel would insist that the tragic experience of a single person – the suffering that lasted until death – is easily absorbed and sublated by the system in its passage towards the genuine historical absolute.
However, despite such unflagging optimism, Kierkegaard thought that the specifically real was primal, above and beyond thought. the real cannot be exhausted by thought, cannot be reduced and compartmentalized into spic and span system of philosophy. The supra-individual system glosses over the speck in one’s eye, for it is an existential coloration of mood. In other words, one’s subjective life can never be turned into the object of formally abstract knowledge.
There are contradictions in the individual, Kierkegaard thought, the agonizing choices that everyone has, but they are never “surpassed.” With a smile, Hegel dismisses this private agony as the “romantic unhappy conscience”, for it is a moment already known in essence and thereby surpassed in the process. However, Kierkegaard’s irreducible subjectivity has a “magical transcendence” up his sleeve, a mystical going beyond to God. This is not to be confused with the traditional religious sense of leap “up” to God, but a free fall into subjective inwardness of infinite depth. Kierkegaard places the individual on the very brink of the absurd, and his problematic is that the falling is inevitable.
In order to win God, in order to believe, one must lose one’s understanding.
Sartre called this a sacrificial transcendence, a last suicidally absurd insurrection against Hegel’s “science” of philosophy, and Hegel would have objected to the narrow paradox, and say that his Aufhebung is the better alternative, for it promises the enrichment of the objectivity of all people.
Kierkegaard’s “fallenness” into absurd faith is a quasi-suicidal transcendence, and a clever weapon, some would say desperate, against the systematizing Hegelian history. Hegel’s blatant optimism in the priority of philosophy over experience gnawed at Kierkegaard. Hegel saw philosophy, as a science, lacked the use for the relative question of the individual experience in the real movement of history. Outrageous, thought Kierkegaard, for there’s nothing to such “science” but to make a scandal of faith and turn Christianity into a faithlessly rationalist regime.
Christendom, for Kierkegaard is the society that is Christian in name only, but virtually atheist, for the society has institutionalized its own reason for being Christian. Hegel is correct, in this sense – the genuine experience of faith has already been bypassed for historical reasons of state. That means faith has no room to go, except Kierkegaard’s self-elected absurdity. Sartre himself is probably incorrect when he dismisses Kierkegaard for not being a philosopher, and that Hegel is the superior thinker. In a nutshell, Kierkegaard has lured the reader into the depths of subjectivity, only to pull the rug out under us and reveal that without God, unhappiness is ubiquitous. Kierkegaard was the first post-Christian who realized that Christianity has become a mockery of the Evangelical ideal, and that it is no longer a given belief, but nonexistent unless testified by faith in it.