Søren Kierkegaard y que significa ser un individuo.

Kierkegaard es para mi uno de los filósofos con quién mis ideas filosóficas y religiosas han encontrado gran afinidad y resonancia. Quizás la forma más simple de explicarlo se basa en que sus ideas sobre que es lo que significa ser una persona, que es lo que involucra y como categorizarlo las articula desde las construcciones narrativas del cristianismo. Kierkegaard es mucho mas que seductor cuando nos encontramos en un presente en dónde “comulgar” con creencias y principios religiosos es mirado con sospecha y con la misma sospecha se observa el cuestiomiento a esa “comunion” con un pensamiento crítico que solo se centra en el hombre.

En este ensayo se mencionan a otros filósofos que estan al mismo grado de intensidad en afinidad y resonancia para mi, entre ellos Simone Weil, Albert Camus, Miguel de Unamuno, Wittgestein… de los cuales hablaré en otros posts. aqui va esta primera versión en inglés… update pronto…

Evaluate Kierkegaard’s understanding of what it means to be an individual

To understand what it means to be an individual in Kierkegaard’s thought my approach will be very simple. First of all I will try to define what the irreducible essence and unity in Kierkegaard’s ideas are about, what it mean to be human. Secondly I will expand the understanding of the concept of despair from “Sickness Unto Death”. I will use two examples related to the concept of despair from Albert Camus and Simone Weil. Thirdly I will make a brief comparison between Miguel de Unamuno and Kierkegaard. Fourthly I make a critique of the most popular understanding of Kierkegaard’s stages. And finally I will give a brief evaluation of what I understand from Kierkegaard of the mean of what it is to be an individual.

From innocence to despair an understanding of human nature

It is in the analysis of the concepts of hereditary sin, innocence, freedom and the fall, that Kierkegaard argument finds the concept of anxiety to be the common denominator and essence of human behaviour.

To begin with, Kierkegaard uses the story of the Genesis with the first man Adam at the centre. As a Christian thinker this story is at the core of human existence. His principle interest is what he will call “Anthropological observations”.

To clarify where Kierkegaard is coming from, he relates the story of Adam as a first man to the whole of the human race. For him if there were any difference between Adam and the human race then this would amount a contradiction: “therefore that which explains Adam also explains the race and vice versa.” (CoA; Pp 29)

The story of Adam is used by Kierkegaard to understand concepts like sin, hereditary sin, innocence and freedom as part of the integrity of one man life (Adam).

It was in the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil where the first sin took place. Adam sinned first of all through desire but then later on in action: “a qualitative leap”

The only explanation of sin is: Sin is sin.

When we translate this to the human race, it becomes clear that for Kierkegaard the concept of hereditary sin is a quantitative account (in history or time) of the sin of the whole human race: “Since the race does not begin anew with every individual, the sinfulness of the race does indeed acquire a history.”(CoA; Pp 33).

But what the story of Adam is telling us is that the participation of the individual in the human race is also of a qualitative nature: “For this reason the race does not begin anew with every individual, in which case there would be no race at all, but every individual begins anew with the race.” (CoA, Pp 33-34)

What Kierkegaard is doing when he binds together the story of Adam with the rest of the humanity is separating the actuality of sin (and the impossibility of explanation) and the human behaviour which leads them to sin: “But innocence is always lost by the qualitative leap of the individual” (CoA, Pp 37)

The main question would be: What leads a man like Adam, living in a state of innocence (an innocence that Kierkegaard also understands as ignorance), a state of “peace and repose” and “not contention and strife” to sin?
The answer is: Nothing and then he follows: “But what effect does nothing have? It begets anxiety.”

Kierkegaard argues that anxiety is “built in” in the nature of Adam (therefore Man) and the explanation of anxiety must be understood in psychological terms: “Usteri’s explanation is to the effect that it was the prohibition itself not to eat of the tree of knowledge that gave birth to the sin of Adam. This does not at all ignore the ethical, but it admits that somehow the prohibition only predisposes that which breaks forth in Adam’s qualitative leap.” (CoA, Pp 39)

On Kierkegaard’s view guilt is that qualitative leap from innocence to sin, “Just as Adam lost innocence by guilt, so every man loses it in the way.” (CoA, Pp 35) and from here the only distinction between the human race and Adam is that Adam (and Eve) were the first sinners and from that point on we all inherit sin.

In a few words, the concept of the fall for Kierkegaard is that qualitative leap that every human makes from innocence to sin produced by anxiety.

For Kierkegaard it is clear that the state of innocence in Adam prior to sin required “freedom” as a precondition to him being able to choose between good and evil: “When it is assumed that the prohibition awakens the desire, one acquires knowledge instead of ignorance, and in that case Adam must have had a knowledge of freedom, because the desire was to use it. The explanation is therefore subsequent. The prohibition induces in him anxiety, for the prohibition awakens in him freedom’s possibility.” (CoA, Pp 44)

Briefly, Adam’s first sin occurred when he realized, after eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that he was guilty. The concept of hereditary sin, in Kierkegaard view, is the inheritance of this pattern of the fall produced by anxiety.

This difference between sin and hereditary sin, dialectically gives two types of anxiety, Objective anxiety and subjective anxiety. (It is important to remark that this difference in Kierkegaard’s thought will become more important in his later work. The consciousness or unconsciousness of a state of our soul will differentiate the way an individual behaves towards his own existence.)

The anxiety in Adam would not repeat itself again: “Adam’s anxiety has two analogies, the objective anxiety in nature and the subjective anxiety in the individual, of which the latter contains a more and the first a less than the anxiety in Adam.”(CoA, Pp 60)

Once Kierkegaard reaches this point, the relationship between creation and our senses becomes the means to explain creation. Sensuousness is at the centre of man’s anxiety.

When he describes sin as the “Anxiety as the Consequence of that Sin which Is Absence of the Consciousness of Sin.”(CoA, Pp 81) Kierkegaard defines anxiety as the cause of sin even when we do not recognize anxiety as such.

This view of anxiety allows him to describe different kinds of anxiety in qualitative stages: “In the sphere of historical freedom, transition is a state. However to understand this correctly, one must not forget that the new is brought about through the leap. If this is not maintained, the transition will have a quantitative preponderance over the elasticity of the leap.”(CoA, Pp 85) In a few words, if a person in anxiety at a given level does not make the transition from one level to another, then the state of this person will only account quantitatively to the level to which he or she belongs.

Anxiety in Kierkegaard’s view will be: “the final psychological state from which sin breaks forth in the qualitative leap.” (CoA, Pp 93) I will summarize this psychological state manifest itself as follows:

Anxiety of the spiritlessness:

“In spiritlessness there is no anxiety, because it is too happy, too content and too spiritless for that” (CoA, Pp 95) – at this stage anxiety is waiting, hidden and disguised.

Anxiety defined as fate:

“Fate is a relation to spirit as external” (CoA, Pp 96)
“For fate is precisely the unity of necessity and the accidental.”
“Fate, then, is the nothing of anxiety. It is nothing because as soon as spirit is posited, anxiety is cancelled, but so also is fate, for thereby providence is also posited” (CoA, Pp 97)

Anxiety defined as guilt

“For guilt is indeed something. Nevertheless, it is true that as long as guilt is the object of anxiety, it is nothing. The ambiguity lies in the relation, for as soon as guilt is posited, anxiety is gone, and repentance is there.” (CoA, Pp 103)
“Thus what held true in the preceding, that only with sin is providence posited, again holds true here: only with sin is atonement posited, and its sacrifice is not repeated.” (CoA, Pp 104)

“He fears only guilt, for guilt alone can deprive him of freedom” (CoA, Pp 108)
“What it fears is not to recognize itself as guilty, if it is, but rather it fears to become guilty, for which reason freedom, as soon as guilt is posited, returns as repentance.”
“The relation of freedom to guilt is anxiety, because freedom and guilt are still only possibilities.” (CoA, Pp 109)

Anxiety of sin in an individual

Kierkegaard argues that by the qualitative leap sin entered the world. In the previous stages of anxiety we see that anxiety relates mostly to the individual in a subconscious way.

When a person becomes aware of the possibilities the relationship between anxiety and the possible, has an object to make a distinction: “Yet this time the object of anxiety is a determinate something and its nothing is an actual something, because the distinction between good and evil is posited in concreto – and anxiety therefore loses its dialectical ambiguity.” (CoA, Pp 111-112)

In this case actuality becomes conscious of a qualitative leap.

It is at this point where it is important to observe the dichotomy of Kierkegaard’s perspective towards a deeper understanding of the individual.

The ethical question between good and evil, and his understanding of how this anxiety affects us, will set the final answer of how an individual, aware of this qualitative leap of his sinfulness, will apply this theory to himself.

Anxiety about the evil

(a)    “The posited sin is indeed an annulled possibility, but it is also an unwarranted actuality, and as such, anxiety can relate itself to it.” (CoA, Pp 113)
Here, “the anxiety is about the actuality of sin” (CoA, Pp 115)

(b)    “The posited sin is in itself also a consequence, even though it is a consequence foreign to freedom. This consequence announces itself, and anxiety relates itself to the future appearance of this consequence, which is the possibility of a new state.” (CoA, Pp 113)
Here, “Anxiety is directed towards the possibility of sin” (CoA, Pp 115)

(c)    “The posited sin is an unwarranted actuality. It is actuality, and it is posited by the individual as actuality in repentance, but repentance does not become the individual’s freedom.”
Here, anxiety is: “Repentance ventures all. It conceives of the consequence of sin as suffering penalty and of perdition as the consequence of sin. (CoA, Pp 115)

Anxiety about the good (the demonic)

The demonic is anxiety about the good. In innocence, freedom was not posited as freedom: its possibility was anxiety in the individual. In the demonic, the relation is reversed. Freedom is posited as unfreedom, because freedom is lost. Here again freedom’s possibility is anxiety. The difference is absolute, because freedom’s possibility appears here in relation to unfreedom, which is the very opposite of innocence, which is a qualification disposed toward freedom. (CoA, Pp 123)

Kierkegaard gives plenty of examples from his own time where we can see the demonic manifest itself in contemporary society. From sudden and contentless or boring to unfreedom all these are states to differentiate the anxiety that comes from the demonic:

“However, men are not willing to think eternity earnestly but are anxious about it, and anxiety can contrive a hundred evasions. And this is precisely the demonic.” (CoA, Pp 154)

In this stage freedom can be lost Somatically-Physically or Pneumatically, Kierkegaard will take from here the ultimate qualitative leap an individual can make or perhaps better, suffers.

Anxiety as saving through faith

One of Kierkegaard’s concerns was how to restate Christianity in a way that is useful again. In this sense somewhere along the line Kierkegaard has to keep his options open. Weather he was personally a man of faith is open to interpretation. In my opinion the question is not relevant and even Kierkegaard himself would think as much.

How do we overcome anxiety?

“Anxiety is freedom’s possibility, and only such anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness.” (CoA, Pp 155)

The only thing that is truly able to disarm the sophistry of sin is faith, courage to believe that the state itself is a new sin, courage to renounce anxiety without anxiety, which only faith can do; faith does not thereby annihilate anxiety, but, itself eternally young, it extricates itself from anxiety’s moment of death. Only faith is able to do this, for only in faith is the synthesis eternal and at every moment possible. (CoA, 117)

Until here, in my opinion the basics of what Kierkegaard understands of what it means to be an individual is explained fully. A man with no hope is a man who despairs over and over until death.

The sickness unto death

What Have we seen so far:
Despair is sin
For Kierkegaard the extreme anxiety is despair.
Falling in despair is the qualitative leap.
It is this despair that Søren Kierkegaard calls “The Sickness Unto Death”

Many times Kierkegaard was called the father of existentialism, mostly because in his main focus of human understanding existence is seen as the means to improve ourselves. For reasons outside the scope of this essay, existentialism is normally associated with atheism and therefore Kierkegaard has mistakenly been put into this category along with many other existentialists.

It is not the simple fact of believing or not in God where Kierkegaard’s ideas gave his paternity over existentialism but rather in the focus of the self were the concept lies there in: “The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself.” (TSUD, Pp 43)

But in Kierkegaard’s formula before we reach the level of despair the relation has to have something to relate to itself: “Such a relation, which relates to itself, a self must either have established itself or been established by something else (TSUD, Pp 43)

Once this relation is achieved consciously or unconsciously we reach the level of despair:“Such a derived, established relation is the human self, a relation which relates to itself, and in relating to itself relates to something else. That is why there can be two forms of authentic despair. If the human self were self-established, there would only be a question of one form: not wanting to be itself, wanting to be rid of itself (TSUD, Pp 43)

The dichotomy explained by the comparison of Albert Camus and Simone Weil.

The best two examples of these categories from the 20th century are, in my opinion reflected by the ideas of Simone Weil, wanting in despair to be rid of oneself, and Albert Camus, wanting in despair to be oneself.

The mystical existentialism in Weil and the agnostic existentialism in Albert Camus show the two different sides of the same coin. On the one side there is Decreation (loosing our concept of ourselves as the means to reach closer to God) but on the other is the Penitent Judge (lost in the middle of a ‘Demonic’ city like Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence can’t delude himself of his nature of judging and through this very own nature judging himself as guilty as the sentence that he administrated.)

I feel that these are the two best examples because unlike Søren Kierkegaard, they lived in times far away from the comfort of the European of the mid XIX Century. Half way through the XX Century despair was all around Europe, and with it, the ideas about existence were challenged to the extreme.

I have shown that the main question of what it means to be an individual in Kierkegaard’s thought has been established. Despair and the subsequent stages of the same would be concepts elaborated under the basis previously described:

“Despair is to be understood as the sickness, not the remedy. Such is the dialectical nature of despair. So too in Christian terminology is death the expression for the greatest spiritual misery and yet the cure just to die. To depart from life (TSUD, Pp 36)

The value of being “one” (Miguel de Unamuno)

The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno takes in his book, “Tragic sense of life”, a more direct and organized way of criticizing the dominating philosophy of the time.

In accepting that the human being is a combination in conflict of the desire of being immortal and the body which perceives itself as something finite, Unamuno portrays all the philosophies as more or less a reflection of this combination. Most Phylosophies try to answer a question that has no answer.

“Faith in immortality is irrational. And, notwithstanding”, faith, life, and reason have mutual need of one another. This vital longing is not properly a problem, cannot assume a logical status, cannot be formulated in propositions susceptible of rational discussion; but it announces itself in us as hunger announces itself.” (Tragic sense of life, Pp, 111)

Like Kierkegaard in his criticism of the Hegelian method, Unamuno goes beyond and destroys any attempt to make sense out of faith and reason by means of mutual explanation. It is this conflict that makes us human, being “in the depths of the abyss” that leads us to a tragic-comic sense of life.

“And in the fact that it serves as a basis for action and morals, this feeling of uncertainty and the inward struggle between reason on the one hand and faith and the passionate longing for eternal life on the other, should find their justification in the eyes of the pragmatist. But it must be clearly stated that I do not adduce this practical consequence in order to justify the feeling, but merely because I encounter it in my inward experience. I neither desire to seek, nor ought I to seek, any justification for this state of inward struggle and uncertainty and longing; it is a fact and that suffices. And if anyone finding himself in this state, in the depth of the abyss, fails to find there motives for and incentives to life and action, and concludes by committing bodily or spiritual suicide, whether he kills himself or he abandons all co-operation with his fellows in human endeavour, it will not be I who will pass censure upon him. And apart from the fact that the evil consequences of a doctrine, or rather those which we call evil, only prove, I repeat, that the doctrine is disastrous for our desires, but not that it is false in itself, the consequences themselves depend not so much upon the doctrine as upon him who deduces them. The same principle may furnish one man with grounds for action and another man with grounds for abstaining from action, it may lead one man to direct his effort towards a certain end and another man towards a directly opposite end. For the truth is that our doctrines are usually only the justification a posteriori of our conduct, or else they are our way of trying to explain that conduct to ourselves. .” (Tragic sense of life, Pp 111)

This rather long quote, I think, summarizes the whole idea of what it means to be an individual for Kierkegaard. Either in despair or not, wanting or not to be oneself the journey is ours.

The journey sought as stages

Many other philosophers have tried to systematize Søren Kierkegaard’s ideas, more than once. These attempts were made from the very perspective that Kierkegaard rejected. They simplified them so much, that very little of Kierkegaard is left in those interpretations.

Others get caught in the trap of Kierkegaard’s authorship games; the use of pseudonyms for contradictory views which were not his personal ones. They try to find secret reasons, or giving more importance to these games than the ideas portrayed in his books.

The most popular one shows that existence can be seen as three stages. Peter Vardy demonstrates that this popular view of the three stages of people’s lives is ‘central’ to understand his whole authorship. They are basically divided in three as follows.

The Aesthetic Stage
“The person in the aesthetic stage rejects the ethical norms and the values of society and is instead dedicated to constructing his or her own identity either through living in the world of ideas and the intellect or through the pursuit of pleasure, albeit pleasure of a sophisticated kind.” (Peter Vardy; Kierkegaard, Pp, 34)

The Ethical Stage
“It is by the individual’s own choice of the ethical that he or she integrates the self and establishes his or her identity. The individual, the judge claims, makes a free decision to commit him or herself and then lives out this commitment. The individual is bound to freely chosen laws and God is not necessary.” (Peter Vardy; Kierkegaard, Pp, 46)

The Religious Stage
“The aesthetic and the ethical stages both end in despair.”
“Only when this despair is reached and when it is understood that all finite end terminate in disappointment may the individual come to relate him or herself directly to God.
The religious stage entails a personal relationship with God and a direct accountability to God.”
“Resignation from all temporal concerns can be achieved by an individual’s own efforts – such an individual is a ‘knight of infinite resignation’, who surrenders all temporal aspirations and, in so doing, becomes conscious of being an individual before the eternal – an eternal consciousness’ comes into being when she or he becomes aware of God free from the distractions of the temporal. However, the second step is the step of faith and faith involves an action by God. It is not something that can be achieved simply by an act of will. What is more, humility is an essential precondition for faith.” (Peter Vardy; Kierkegaard, Pp 56)

Though these view are not absolutely incorrect, their interpretation is ambiguous. Though Kierkegaard posited an analysis of stages, nowhere does he insist on 3 precise stages to the development of the human self-identity. As I have shown above in my description of anxiety, the scope of human understanding cannot be limited to a three stage explanation

“Kierkegaard uses the terminology of several stages in his author ship to cover different life-situations. In essence, the aesthete is the one who lives a spontaneous or immediate life and, change-able in feelings, moods and bodily condition, thus interacts with his changing environment. The ethical person lives within the context of choice in relation to moral requirement, not least the moral requirement of that person’s social context. The religious person’s God-centred lift: has to do with fulfilment, with the individual’s effort and failure to fulfil requirement, and with the actual fulfilment seen as coming from God’s side through forgiveness and grace.” (Julia Watkin; Kierkegaard, Pp 53)

“The reading of Kierkegaard’s authorship thus becomes complicated if one approaches it using the stages as pegs along the way, as anyone who has tried to fit the entire authorship into the stages will soon discover.
To look at Kierkegaard’s authorship in terms of objective stages, even when we ignore the consideration that the pseudonyms. Views are meant to be different, can thus prove a frustrating exercise that turns what is intended to he three- dimensional into the one-dimensional. At the same time it ignores the situation to which, and in which, Kierkegaard was writing.” (Julia Watkin; Kierkegaard, Pp 54)
The main question I intended to answer in this essay goes further than the stages or the complexity authorship problems. As a man I live on my own anxiety sometimes in despair mostly not, I can no longer accept that the media is the message.

My criticism to this view is akin to seeing a movie, reading a book or listening to music and wandering, like a new apprentice, who thinks that knowing how was it made will gave him the ability of saying marvellous things.

If we are to see all his works as focused on his main interest, the human existence, then this approach of ‘the stages’ can be interpreted just as a tool created by aesthetes or ethical people trying to find the best synopsis of Kierkegaard for their own self-aggrandizement.

If we can see in our own lives a timeline from innocence to despair, the stages only can be used as a definition of where we are. A human being is just a being that manifests itself with actions driven by anxiety; would it give any consolation to his anxiety/despair to know how?

Final evaluation on what Søren Kierkegaard understands of what it means to be an individual

It is not difficult to see why Kierkegaard was called the father of existentialism when we see from his ideas, that he is most interested in anthropological contemplation. The existence of man it is something that we are aware of.

“Man is a synthesis of psyche and body that is constituted and sustained by spirit.” (CoA, Pp 81) and also “He is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal” (CoA, Pp 85).

At the same time, he uses mostly a Christian understanding of what it means to be an individual without touching the theological question. What he personally believed is something that we cannot know for sure, but when he puts man at centre-stage, he gives us a better understanding of what has been said, in Christianity, about what we are.

For Kierkegaard the question starts with ourselves; in our own existence. Conscious or unconscious of the freedom or the forces that rules our behaviour, Kierkegaard certainly believes that existence is at the centre of every one of us. Our heritage.

The differences between one another simply demonstrates the variety of our world. From these differences he sets his own categories, from his own understanding, like a game, hoping that someone wants to play with them and raise that game further.

For Kierkegaard, Adam was created with knowledge of his own freedom, but not the knowledge of the world and its goodness and malignancy.
This is our fall; anxiety, our loss of innocence, our qualitative leap into guilt and sin. That is something we all experience in our lives.

For Kierkegaard eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil puts us in the position of having to learn and suffer and later answer the question.

In answering the question categories follow. If we ask about knowing what is good or bad Kierkegaard may say that we are still learning in some sense. Whether we are conscious or unconscious of this question, Kierkegaard certainly believes that it is a question we cannot escape from answering.

Wanting or not wanting to answer that question is a choice that speaks of each individual and having these options are, in my opinion, what Kierkegaard think it means to be fully human.


Mariano Gutierrez Alarcon


Kierkegaard, Søren; The concept of anxiety; Princeton; 1980 (CoA)
Kierkegaard, Søren; The sickness unto death; Penguin Books; 1989 (TSUD)
Watkin, Julia, Kierkegaard, Geoffrey Chapman; 1997
Vardy, Peter; Kierkegaard; Triumph; 1996
Weil, Simone; Gravity and Grace; Routledge; 2004
Camus, Albert; The fall; Penguin Classics; 2000
Unamuno, Miguel de; Tragic sense of life; Dover; 1921

Mariano Gutiérrez Alarcón

This is Mariano's Blog, here is a compilation of all my interests, as eclectic as they are, my main intention here is articulate them all in one place, and a better platform to show my work and my thoughts freely.

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