Saturday, 21 December 2013

Core Existentialism : Kierkegaard's Motifs

As I had defined previously, there are two existentialisms. What Kierekegaard professed is the original, actual and true existientialism. This, I call as "core existentialism"; everything else is "extended existentialism". This post is an attempt at summarizing core existentialism by giving relevant excerpts of his writings.

The source is Existentialism : From Dostoevsky to Sartre [1]. Chapter three, "Kierkegaard: THE FIRST EXISTENTIALIST" has seven selections of his writings. The seven selections are: 1. On His Mission 2. On His Works 3. On His Mode of Existence 4. "That Individual" 5. Dread and Freedom 6. Authority 7. "Truth is Subjectivity."

From each section, I have taken a few lines that give the central idea of that particular section. Thus, these are Kierekagaard's motifs, in his own words, for what make up for core existentialism --


1. Mission
Out of love for mankind, and out of despair at my embarassing situation, seeing that I had accomplished nothing and was unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and moved by a genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere......

2. Works
The problem is itself is a problem of reflection: to become a Christian ... when one is a Christian of a sort [2].

3. Mode of Existence
An author is often merely an x, even when his name is signed, something quite impersonal, which addresses itself abstractly, by the aid of printing, to thousands and thousands, while remaining itself unseen and unknown, living life as hidden, as anonymous, as it is possible for a life to be, in order, presumably, not to reveal the too obvious and striking contradiction between the prodigious means of communication employed and the fact that the author is only a single individual -- perhaps also for fear of the control which in practical life must always be exercised over every one who wishes to teach others, to see whether his personal experience comports with his communication [3].

Melancholy, incurably melancholy as I was, suffering prodigious griefs in my inmost soul, having broken in desperation from the world and all that is of the world, strictly brought up from my very childhood in the apprehension that the truth might suffer and be mocked and derided, spending a definite time everyday in prayer and devout meditation, and being myself personally a penitent -- in short, being what I was, I found (I don not deny it) a certain sort of satisfaction in this life, in this inverse deception, a satisfaction in observing that the deception succeeded so extraordinarily, that the public and I were on the most confidential terms, that I was quite in the fashion as the preacher of a gospel of worldliness, that though I was not in possession of the sort of distinction which can only be earned by an entirely different mode of life, yet in secret (and hence the more heartily loved) I was the darling of the public, regarded by every one as prodigiously interesting and witty.

4. That Individual
A crowd -- not this crowd or that, the crowd now living or the crowd long deceased, a crowd of humble people or of superior people, of rich or of poor, etc. -- a crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.

The crowd is untruth.

5. Dread and Freedom
When we consider the dialectical determinants in dread, it appears that they have precisely the characteristic ambiguity of psychology. Dread is a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy. One easily sees, I think, that this is much more truly a psychological subject than is the concupiscence of which we have spoken [3].

One may liken dread to dizziness. He whose eye chances to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But the reason for it is just as much his eye as it is his precipice. For suppose he had not looked down.

Thus dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when the spirit would posit the synthesis, and freedom then gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself. In this dizziness freedom succumbs. Further than this psychology cannot go an will not. That very instant everything is changed, and when freedom rises again it sees that it is guilty. Between these two instants lie the leap, which no science has explained or can explain. He who became guilty in dread becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to be. Dread is a womanish debility in which freedom swoons.

In dread, there is the egoistic infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms and fascinates with its sweet anxiety.

6. Authority
Authority is something which remains unchanged, which one cannot acquire by having understood the doctrine in the fullest sense. Authority is a specific quantity which comes from another place and makes itself felt precisely when the content of the saying or of the action is assumed to be indifferent.

Though Christianity comes into the heart of never so many believers, every believer is conscious that it has not arisen in his heart, is conscious that the objective determinant of Christianity is not a reminiscence, as love is of the fact of falling in love, is not an apparently objective something which nevertheless is subjective, like love which as an objective something is an illusion and loving is the reality.

7. Truth is Subjectivity
No, philological scholarship is absolutely within its rights, and the present author yields to none in profound respect for that which science consecrates. But the scholarly critical theology makes no such clear and definite impression upon the mind; its entire procedure suffers from a certain conscious or unconscious ambiguity. It constantly seems as if this issue is relevant to faith. Here lies the difficulty.

When the question of truth is raised in an objective manner, reflection is directed objectively to the truth, as an object to which the knower is related. Reflection is not focussed upon the relationship, however, but upon the question of whether it is the truth to which the knower is related. If only the object to which he is related is the truth, the subject is accounted to be in the truth. When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual's relationship; if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true.

Aesthetically the contradiction that truth becomes untruth in this or that person's mouth, is best construed comically : In the ethico-religious sphere, accent is again on the "how." But this is not to be understood as referring to demeanor, expression, or the like; rather it refers to the relationship sustained by the existing individual, in his own existence, to the content of his utterance. Objectively the interest is focussed merely on the thought-content, subjectively on the inwardness. At its maximum this inward "how" is the passion of the infinite, and the passion of the infinite is the truth. But the passion of the infinite is precisely subjectivity, and this subjectivity becomes the truth....

When subjectivity is the truth, the conceptual determination of the truth must include an expression for the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of the fork in the road where the way swings off; this expression will at the same time serve as an indication of the tension of the subjective inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.

The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. I contemplate the order of nature in the hope of finding God and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety. The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty. But it is for this very reason that the inwardness becomes as intense as it is, for it embraces this objective uncertainty with the entire passion of the infinite.

Notes: [1] Existentialism : From Dostoevsky to Sartre by Walter Kaufmann. Published by the Penguin Group, 1989.
[2] In no way, is core existentialism a call to Christianity. My intention is that the selections should be read by (mentally) replacing Christianity with "faith" or the name of your religion.
[3] There are two difficult words in the above selections. One is comports, used in "... to see whether his personal experience comports with his communication." It means 'conduct oneself; behave.' The second one is concupiscence, used in "this is much more truly a psychological subject than is the concupiscence of which we have spoken.". It means 'strong desire; passion.'

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