This book by C. Stephen Evans does a good job of introducing Kierkegaard’s life and philosophy in clear terms to someone who doesn’t have a deep background in philosophy. Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher from the 19th century, is important for his contributions as a theological thinker and a philosopher, and one reason I’m interested in him because he combines two philosophic strands that interest me: Naturalism (the idea that we’re determined by forces beyond our control, especially biology) and Existentialism (the idea that we are defined by and responsible for our actions). As a Christian philosopher, Kierkegaard’s central idea is that we’re created by God as a species (subject to certain biological roles) but that we’re endowed with the freedom to create our individual selves. Furthermore, we have a duty to develop our selves in a certain way, according to our natures. Some key takeaways:
- Spheres of Existence: As I wrote below, Kierkegaard has this idea that we live in three separate stages or spheres — the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The aesthetic sphere is characterized by the “here and now,” by sensory satisfactions and immediate desires. In the ethical sphere, we attain consciousness of a higher purpose, a duty to develop our selves. In the religious sphere, we progress even further and recognize our distance from God and seek to close that gap. I’m not totally clear on the difference between the ethical and religious spheres.
- Subjectivity: One of Kierkegaard’s key lines is, “Truth is subjectivity.” It seems like he does believe in an objective Truth, but that for Truth to have any meaning it requires a subject to acknowledge it. Because I’m cooking up some connection between Kierkegaard and the Internet, a way I’m understanding this is that the Internet exists objectively, but a subject has to connect before it has any meaning. A converse idea from Kierkegaard is that “Subjectivity is Untruth,” meaning, I think, that there is an objective Truth. You have to dial into the Internet, rather than just say, “I’m online.” Truth exists outside of the subject, but Truth requires a subject to have any meaning. As I’ll go into in another bullet, Kierkegaard is big on the individual, and one way to move from the aesthetic to the ethical sphere is to step away from the pack, rather than simply following others. (Think about inane “sophisticates” who pass off as their own opinions they read in the news, rather than having original thoughts of their own. Kierkegaard would encourage them to get a life.)
- Faith: Because Kierkegaard’s thought is rooted in Christianity, his is a philosophy of faith. He tends to believe that we learn the way Socrates teaches, by being shown what we already know. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but it seems like he believes the source of faith is ultimately divine, i.e. not something we can be taught. From Evans’ book, it seems faith is linked to the idea of moving from the aesthetic sphere to the religious sphere, of becoming an individual self. Also woven into the mix is the idea of God incarnate as man, which Kierkegaard calls the Absolute Paradox (another thing to accept on divinely inspired faith).
- Despair: I’m on more familiar terrain here. For Kierkegaard, there seems to be two kinds of despair — a weak, passive despair in which an individual is not trying to develop as an individual. This is the most common kind of despair, the despair of Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer. It’s also the despair that comes from consumer distraction, and from being a societal follower rather than an individual, or from being a copy rather than an original. I think Kierkegaard would have a field day with Facebook, which is one giant community where the object is to participate and blend in. In many ways, I think, Facebook is epitome of the aesthetic sphere, whose purpose is to keep us in despair. I’m not the only one who thinks this. A second type of despair, according to Kierkegaard, is a despair from defiance, from willing yourself into becoming a false self. I’m not totally clear on how this despair works, though I can see it might have an influence on Camus. Evans is firm in the view that Kierkegaard does not believe in “radical choice,” as the Existentialists do, but we do apparently have the ability to defy our true selves. Someone should write a paper about the despair from defiance and Milton’s Satan.