Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Extracts from (a very small part of) Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

The following quotes are collected from the book where Kierkegaard most thoroughly expounds his critic of the Hegelian System of Philosophy—a system, however, that, according to Kierkegaard, forgets that it is impossible for the existing individual to adapt to the abstract, pure and systematical universe of thought, no matter how comprehensive and logical this universe may be. Kierkegaard calls such thinking "the Abstraction" or "the Speculation" etc. To be a human being is for Kierkegaard something that can only be lived, not spoken of or speculated over. It will not do then to describe life in words only. Living cannot be reduced to words, because words are fixed entities, divorced from the flux of life!

The phrase "systematical thinking" or "pure thinking" may also refer to something far more down-to- earth than Hegels philosophical universe of concepts. Maybe the biggest threat to the individual today is the tempting offer from the commercial industry to become a happy and admired person merely by purchasing a particular product. To give oneself up only to become part of an ideal established by commercial interests, is perhaps a way to commit the very same mistake as the one Kierkegaard accuses Hegel of committing: namely to believe that you can become a Self without being a Self first.

It is difficult to find one's own identity also because we have to adopt to different abstract "systems": advertisement and the power of "the others", the school's curricula, "politically correct" attitudes in public and social life, secularization (everything can be measured in pounds and pence, there are no absolute values) etc. Systems like these become even stronger and almost coercive when they eventually turn out to be the only frameworks society has to offer to the individual! Still, confronted with an individual, these systems fall short, invariably! Kierkegaard would perhaps have said to this: the meaning of life is not to become part of a system, but to become oneself. And what this means, he has a lot to say in the following quotes.

In our opinion these quotes in themselves are so knowing and deep that without further ado they should qualify as discussion starters for the older youths (15+)—provided, however, that the adult does his or her "homework" on beforehand, that he or she at the very least takes the bother to study these text him- or herself before presenting them to the kids.

(Quoted from Concluding Unscientific Postscript To Philosophical Fragments, volume XII.1, translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1992. Text in brackets, [ ] = our commentaries to the quotes.)

"I know very well that people usually admire the artist-life of a person who follows his talent without accounting to himself for what it means to be human, so that the admirer forgets him in admiration over his work of art. But I also know that the tragedy of an existing person of that sort is that he is a variant [i.e. that he has a talent] and the differential [the talent] is not personally reflected in the ethical. I also know that in Greece a thinker was not a stunted existing person who produced works of art, but he himself was an existing work of art." (p. 303)

"Prior to the outbreak of cholera there usually appears a kind of fly not otherwise seen; in like manner might not these fabolous pure thinkers [i.e. Hegel and his adherents] be a sign that a calamity is in store for humankind—for example, the loss of the ethical and the religious? Therefore, be cautious with an abstract thinker who not only wants to remain in abstraction's pure being but wants this to be the highest for a human being, and wants such thinking, which results in the ignoring of the ethical and a misunderstanding of the religious, to be the highest human thinking. [Because a thinker like that forgets that he as a human being is constantly situated in the becoming and in the world of change, in "vorden" as Kierkegaard puts it. He forgets what is most important to a human, namely that...] the eternal relates itself as the future to the person in a process of becoming." [Eternity, the unchangeable, cannot be established within the frames of a concrete human life. It is something a person stretches towards, something that man is destined for—not something that may be seized, administered and possesed.] (p. 307)

"All logical thinking is in the language of abstraction and sub specie aeterni [from the viewpoint of eternity]. To think existence in this way is to disregard the difficulty, that is, the difficulty of thinking the eternal in a process of becoming, which one is presumably compelled to do since the thinker himself is in a process of becoming. [...] Here again is an example of how the simplest task is the most difficult. To exist, one thinks, is nothing much, even less an art. Of course, we all exist, but to think abstractly—that is something. But truly to exist, that is, to permeate one's existence with consciousness, simultaneously to be eternal, far beyond it, as it were, and nevertheless present in it and nevertheless in a process of becoming—that is truly difficult. If in our day thinking had not become something strange, something secondhand, thinkers would indeed make a totally different impression on people, as was the case in Greece, where a thinker was also an ardent existing person impassioned by his thinking, as was the case at one time in Christendom, where a thinker was a believer who ardently sought to understand himself in the existence of faith." (p. 307-308)

"To think existence [...], is essentially to annul it [...]. Existence without motion is unthinkable, and motion is unthinkable sub specie aeterni [from the viewpoint of eternity]. [...] Existence, like motion, is a very difficult matter to handle. If I think it, I cancel it, and then I do not think it." (p. 308-309)

"Having to exist with the help of the guidance of pure thinking is like having to travel in Denmark with a small map of Europe on which Denmark is no larger than a steel pen-point—indeed, even more impossible." [The same point could also be put like this: to become a complete human being by constantly adjusting to the demands and expectations of the outer world, is just as impossible as filling a glass with water that is turned upside down—no matter how much water you pour over the glass, there won't come a drop into the glass.] (p. 310-311)

[Kierkegaard thinks that every human being consists of two incompatible, contradictory counterparts: eternity and temporality, being and becoming. In order to live one's life and not neglect one's life, one must not only be aware of this absolute contradiction, but also commit oneself to it. You should bear this in mind as you digest the following quote.] "Existing, if this is not to be understood as just any sort of existing, cannot be done without passion. Therefore, every Greek thinker was essentially also a passionate thinker. I have often thought about how one might bring a person into passion. So I have considered the possibility of getting him astride a horse and then frightening the horse into the wildest gallop, or even better, in order to draw out the passion properly, the possibility of getting a man who wants to go somewhere as quickly as possible (and therefore was already in something of a passion) astride a horse that can hardly walk—and yet existing is like that if one is conscious of it. Or if a Pegasus and an old nag were hitched to a carriage for a driver not usually disposed to passion and he was told: Now drive—I think it would be successful. And this is what existing is like if one is to be conscious of it. Eternity is infinitely quick like that winged steed, temporality is an old nag, and the existing person is the driver, that is, if existing is not to be what people usually call existing, because then the existing person is no driver but a drunken peasant who lies in the wagon and sleeps and lets the horses shift for themselves. Of course, he also drives, he is also a driver, and likewise there perhaps are many who—also exist." (p. 311-312)

"Just as the statement that everything is true means that nothing is true, in the same way the statement that everything is in motion means that there is no motion. The motionlessness belongs to motion as motion's goal [...]. Aristotle, who in so many ways emphasizes motion, therefore says that God, himself unmoved, moves everything. [...] Now, whereas pure thinking summarily cancels all motion, or meaningslessly introduces it into logic, the difficulty for the existing person is to give existence the continuity [i.e. some sort of motionlessness] without which everything [i.e. the movement, i.e. life itself in change and becoming as it must necessarily take shape for all creatures that exist] disappears." (p. 312)

"Poetry and art have been called an anticipation of the eternal. If one wants to call them that, one must nevertheless be aware that poetry and art are not essentially related to an existing person, since the contemplation of poetry and art, "joy over the beautiful", is disinterested, and the observer is contemplatively outside himself qua existing person." (p. 313, footnote)

"All knowledge about actuality is possibility. The only actuality concerning which an existing person har more than knowledge about is his own actuality, that he exists, and this actuality is his absolute interest. The demand of abstraction upon him is that he become disinterested in order to obtain something to know; the requirement of the ethical upon him is to be infinitely interested in existing." [This is but one of Kierkegaard's many expositions on the fundamental choice which everybody at some point in life must stand up and face. Then I have two main options. Shall I redress my social mask, shall I try to become something important in this life, shall I seek knowledge so that people can admire me for my knowledge? Or shall I venture to let go of all masks so that I can finally gain integrity and independence—that which all people at the bottom of their hearts are longing for? The first option, to forget oneself in order to become "something" in other people's eyes, is what the "system" wants us to do and that is too, unfortunately, what parents, teachers, the gang often expect of us. The other option, however, is only possible to attain if we have an inner urge or demand. To be "infinitely interested in one's own existence" means simply not to care the least about what other people think of you, neither about the expectations these people have on your behalf.]

"From the ethical point of view, actuality is superior to possibility [i.e. being a human being is something far greater and much more valuable than thinking about being a human being—that is, from an ethical point of view. So "actuality" means "living", "possibility" means "thinking".]. The ethical specifically wants to annihilate the disinterestedness of possibility by making the existing the infinite interest. Therefore the ethical wants to prevent every attempt at confusion, such as, for example, wanting to observe the world and human beings ethically. That is, to observe ethically cannot be done, bacause there is only one ethical observing—it is self-observation. The ethical immediately embraces the single individual with its requirement that he shall exist ethically; it does not bluster about millions and generations; it does not take humankind at random, any more than the police arrest humankind in general." (p. 321)

"The ethical grips the single individual and requries of him that he abstain from all observing, especially of the world and humankind, because the ethical as the internal [Danish: "det Indvortes"] cannot be observed by anyone standing outside. The ethical can be carried out only by the individual subject, who then is able to know what lives within him—the only actuality that does not become a possibility by being known and cannot be known only by being thought, since it is his own actuality [this is the only reality that does not become possibility simply by being known and not only can be known by being thought], which he knew as thought-actuality, that is, as possibility, before it became actuality; whereas with regard to another's actuality he knew nothing about it before he, by coming to know it, thought it, that is, changed it into possibility." [Actuality has to do with the individual's experience of being a human being. Possibility is something secondary that overlaps or doubles this reality, something that is not yet actual (real), something that can be thought, but just because it can be thought, is separated from the actuality's true origin in each, single person.] (p. 320)

Page created: 27.09.06. Page last modified: 09.10.06 13:58.