Kierkegaard was a highly influential philosopher, and Theologian, whose ideas underpin existential psychology as practised today. He was also a literary critic and author of devotional literature. He is regarded as the father of the existential movement because of his emphasis on the freedom of the individual and we see his ideas permeate agnostic philosophers who see great merit in his ideas once you substitute the word cause in lieu of GOD in his synthesis. The unconditional commitment in a balanced way to a cause or GOD is central to his ideas of how we can avoid falling into existential despair. There were many pseudonymous works as he preferred the indirect method of communications.
Kierkegaard mostly stayed in Copenhagen, with only occasional visits to Germany and Sweden.
By courtesy of wealthy parents he was educated at a prestigious boys’ school, then to Copenhagen University. He was the last of 7 children of a deeply religious family, but only one of his siblings was to reach adulthood which had a profound negative affect on his outlook on life.
Introduction to his thinking
Initially Kierkegaard was influenced by the ideas of Hegel contained in the works entitled ‘The Philosophy of Religion’.
Little, Daniel, "Philosophy of History", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/history/>.
Hegel's philosophy of history is perhaps the most fully developed philosophical theory of history that attempts to discover meaning or direction in history (1824a, 1824b, 1857). Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition—the realization of human freedom. “The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world” (1857: 63). Hegel incorporates a deeper historicism into his philosophical theories than his predecessors or successors. He regards the relationship between “objective” history and the subjective development of the individual consciousness (“spirit”) as an intimate one; this is a central thesis in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). And he views it to be a central task for philosophy to comprehend its place in the unfolding of history. “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept” (1857: 62).
But Kierkegaard later found reasons to abandon Hegel’s thinking in favour of a more basic Christianity into the Christendom of his era. He did not agree with the idea of Hegel that placed undue emphasis on Hegel spirit of thinking and it’s over reliance on rationality.
In that respect, he believes each moment involves a judgment to go forward from a prior period of repetition and recurrence in a reference to the platonic soul. But that moment always entails a judgment and Kierkegaard poses an interesting idea in relation to freedom. He talks about the risk as many desist or are uncomfortable with accepting that freedom to make that judgment. Hence immoral practices are given breathing space so that over time they gather momentum and acceptability.
Kierkegaard concluded ethics can only be demonstrated in your action and are a nullity if confined to just desired courses of action. He felt uncomfortable telling people what they should do and favored a process of drawing out of them desired ethical outcomes. An example might be a returned soldier whose aggression and war torn character traits need to be drawn out of him in order he is able to adjust to civilian life.
Possibly his most impressive accomplishment from Sickness unto Death was his synthesis that found a solution to Christendom's merger of Greek rationalism with the Jewish mysticism.
In Part I.A., Kierkegaard talks about human beings as a synthesis of the "infinite and finite," "temporal and eternal," and "freedom and necessity."
Each one of these requires an explanation that I will elaborate on in the future but suffice to say Kierkegaard is arguing human beings (self) are both physical and spiritual. Being in the world means we relate to material things and physical forces- a world of causes and effects. But the self, according to Kierkegaard is both is a spiritual identity that feels as though it is free and is free to make choices and a physical body involving this complex relationship with itself-the self. Kierkegaard uses very difficult phrasing as he talks about a relation (the relation of spirit and body) that relates itself (spirit/body) to itself (spirit/body).
Kierkegaard's idea of despair is based on this account of what is a human being- to argue despair arises when this relationship gets out of balance. In a similar vein to Nietzsche he argues despair can be a defiance of what a human being either doesn't want to be what it is, or wants to be something it is not. Nietzsche simply says be who you are, but the inference if not the same, is very similar.
Thus, not wanting to be what it is (self) in the relationship must be as a consequence of some imbalances - to neglect some aspect of its spirit/body relationship.
Kierkegaard's understanding of despair is his assertion, once it takes hold, it is very difficult to overcome. But he concludes human beings are responsible and that appearances of frustration in existence are in fact an indication of frustration within oneself. Individuals can overcome despair, but it requires tremendous effort and commitment.
But when it came to moral matters Kierkegaard concluded there was nothing specific to communicate, so that mostly his writing is under pseudonyms. He developed an indirect communication’, aimed at drawing people into a more vibrant and authentic relationship with themselves as in the self.
Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St Olaf College and his article in Philosophy Now provides plenty of food for thought for us to all talk about.
He outlines the defining characteristics of existentialism with its enormous accent placed on action and the perils of procrastination.
Kierkegaard, the original existentialist, emphasized that when we don’t act on our convictions, we don’t understand them. He writes, “Precisely this is the profound untruth in all modern teaching, that there is no notion at all of how thought is influenced by the fact that the one presenting it does not dare to express it in action” (Journals and Papers, Vol. 1). By not expressing ideas through action, “the power of the thought disappears.” So his project involves prodding people into moral action, not just thought. Here I want to look at how this relates to procrastination.
Procrastination & Self-Deception
The perils of procrastination are inherent in going with the flow so to speak until such time as the original thought that something is immoral is numbed into acceptance. From there the downslope into a kind of spiritual sickness he equates to a condition of despair. This becomes a form of self-deception Marino puts it this way “If a person does not do what is right at the very second he knows it – then knowing simmers down. Next comes the question of how willing appraises what is known. Willing is dialectical and has under it the entire lower nature of man. If willing does not agree with what is known, then it does not necessarily follow that willing goes ahead and does the opposite of what willing understood… rather willing allows some time to elapse, an interim called: ‘We shall look at it tomorrow’. During all this, knowing becomes more and more obscure, and the lower nature gains the upper hand more and more; alas, for the good must be done immediately, as soon as it is known… the lower nature’s power lies in stretching things out… And when knowing has become duly obscured, knowing and willing can better understand each other; eventually they agree completely, for now knowing has come over to the side of willing and admits that what [willing] wants is absolutely right.”
Death & Time
In his powerful discourse ‘At a Graveside’ (1845), Kierkegaard emphasizes the existential importance of coming to a first-person understanding of our mortality. It might seem anachronistic but, to listen to Kierkegaard, earnestness (alvorlige) as opposed to happiness ought to be the ultimate aim in life. He writes, “Earnestness is that you think of death, and that you are thinking it as your lot.” He then explains a number of ways in which people go wrong in trying to walk over their own grave, for example, by thinking of death as a ‘rest’, or as a ‘great equalizer’, or by putting yourself outside of death with rote memorized phrases such as, “Where I am death is not, and where death is I am not”. However, when we achieve the bone-deep understanding that it is certain that at some uncertain time it will be over for us that understanding will give a force to life and help us avoid the temptation to procrastinate. The individual for whom the day receives high worth as being limited is not going to be inclined to procrastinate, to put off decisions with palliatives such as “I’ll sleep on it.” As Kierkegaard writes:
“Indeed, time also is good. If a person were able to produce a scarcity in the external world, yes, then he would be busy. The merchant is correct in saying that the commodity certainly has its price, but the price still depends very much on the advantageous circumstances at the time – and when there is a scarcity, the merchant profits … With the thought of death the earnest person is able to create a scarcity [of time] so that the year and the day receive infinite worth.”
Both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky have very similar views to embrace a non- rational type of faith that involves an unconditional commitment, which is term underpins meaning to existence. The existentialist views of Kierkegaard are more easily translated into existerntional psychology which remains highly relevant today.