Life after Epiphany

‘saving’ Kierkegaard… looking for truth in his dialectical approach to freedom

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Some time ago, when I first read Søren Kierkegaard in anything more than a passing way, I have to admit I got pretty worked up on his behalf. His personal story was somewhat tragic, and the confusion in his texts did little to comfort me that he ever found peace or fulfilment. Not surprising, really, that he writes so extensively on despair. As I explored some of his work, it struck me that he really seemed so sincere… in a Kantian duty-driven kind of way.

My grand plan was to pray for the repose of his soul, freed now from his “sickness unto death”, not so much “in fear and trembling” as in the hope that he could finally rest in peace. I proceeded to look for an opportunity for a plenary indulgence to be offered for him. I got all excited and was encouraging those with whom I lived to adopt for themselves a messed-up philosopher and to gain a plenary indulgence to be applied to him. My reasoning was this: these people who have done so much damage to the world through their contribution to Western thought – if they got to Heaven, could you imagine how fervently they would be interceding for us in an effort to mitigate the disaster their work could have caused?! Perhaps it all sounds a little silly, but that’s just where my mind went.

I have to admit my genuine (yet surprising) sympathy for this confused man motivates me to attempt to find SOME truth, however little of it exists, amidst the mess of fear and insecurity and lovelessness by which his work is characterised.

Something that really climbed inside my head and asked me to explore it was Kierkegaard’s dialectical notion of ‘self.’ Kierkegaard defines self most deliberately at the commencement of his work The Sickness Unto Death:

The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation. The self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is… in short, a synthesis.

What seems at first glance like confused rambling is really a sophisticated presentation of a reflexive locus of self-relating between self as it is (S1) and self as it will be (S2) which is synthesized in the very process of becoming. (No, don’t get excited Whitehead. Heel, Hartshorne! I am NOT a proponent for process philosophy… not indiscriminately, anyway, and certainly NOT applied to God. Now THERE is something to post about at a later date!!) So let us consider moving from S1 to S2, where at the next point in time S2 becomes S1a seeking to move to S2a which then in turn becomes S1b, etc.

Among the several different lenses through which Kierkegaard explores this notion of self, one in particular really took hold of my interest; Kierkegaard proposes the dialectic of thesis: possibility and antithesis: necessity, arriving at the synthesis freedom. If we substitute these values into Kierkegaard’s “formula” for self (above), we see movement from necessityS1 to possibilityS2, which having been exercised, becomes necessityS1a, that is, the necessity of the self at the next given moment. Freedom within this scheme, therefore, constitutes this continuous movement through time from necessity to possibility.

Before jumping in and exploring his views on necessity and possibility in any depth, its helpful perhaps to establish a benchmark against which we can test what Kierkegaard tells us. A slightly Thomistic vein of thought is helpful here. A true conception of freedom is ordered toward the ultimate good of the self. The ultimate good of self surely consists in the attainment of its final cause, which is to be itself in the presence of God. In the process of attaining this final cause, freedom is the ability to exercise the will, informed by a judgment of the will and with the agreement of the appetite (c.f. Summa Theologiae Ia Q.83 a.3) An obvious impediment to freedom would be coercion; a less obvious impediment may be ignorance of the good – how can one choose what one does not know?

Now Kierkegaard astutely observes that to be spoiled for choice is not freedom. This overemphasis on possibility – to be able to arbitrarily choose anything without any sense of necessity, is actually an impediment to freedom. It causes stagnation on the cusp of decision, and the movement from possibility to necessity ceases. (Incidentally it is interesting to note the similarity between what I have called here “stagnation on the cusp of decision” and what Camus calls “living life at the crossroads”… is the existentialist ever truly free?) At any rate, I feel compelled to interpret Kierkegaard’s position here as a claim that to operate on this plane is to abuse one’s imagination. The use of the imagination involves drawing self out of self in most cases to be another self for a period of time. From an opportunity cost perspective, excesses of this can be dangerous – all that time in possibility is unable to then be spent in actuality. Living thus in the imagination rather than in reality is an impediment to the attainment of the ultimate good for it represents ignorance of the good.

Likewise, “our hero” realizes that to overemphasize necessity results in either determinism or fatalism… ultimately, in the absence of hope. The trajectory of the determinist is fixed upon necessity and never moves back to possibility. The fatalist has no God, or perhaps more accurately, necessity itself functions as the god of the fatalist. There is no room for possibility here – therefore no room for choice and no context for freedom. Kierkegaard asserts that such people are “bereft of imagination” and as such are unable to engage in the activity described above that Kierkegaard calls “healthy functioning of self”. Essentially this exaggeration of necessity constitutes a subtle form of coercion and as such is clearly an impediment to freedom.

Testing against the benchmark established earlier, we can see that both of these discussions of what Kierkegaard claims freedom is not are, in themselves, accurate. His negative doctrine of freedom appears sound.

The positive claims Kierkegaard makes concerning what freedom is are more complicated to test, and I’ve run out of time for now. I am glad, however, that I was able to find some truth in amidst the confusion, even if it resides only in his negative doctrine!!

One thought on “‘saving’ Kierkegaard… looking for truth in his dialectical approach to freedom

  1. Pingback: The telos of beauty | Life after Epiphany

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