Week 9: Kierkegaard




In the first extract from Either / Or in the reader (‘An Ecstatic Lecture’), Kierkegaard describes the position of the aesthete. This position boils down to the view that every choice is necessarily one-sided and relative, and that no choice has more merit than another. Thus, the aesthete does not represent an attitude towards life that consists in the search for beauty; it is rather characterized by irony and lack of commitment. The aesthete is everywhere and nowhere, and – seen from the perspective of the ethicist – is constantly fleeing from himself. The second, much longer, extract (‘The balance…’) consists in a letter from the ethicist to his younger friend the aesthete in which the ethicist puts forward a different conception of the ‘either/or.’ The positions of the aesthete and ethicist that Kierkegaard describes can be understood as two contradictory but essential tendencies of human existence. The conflict between the aesthetic and ethical tendency of human life also played an important role in Kierkegaard’s own life.


The ethicist repeatedly refers to a philosophy that adheres to a ‘mediation of oppositions’: this is a reference to Hegel’s dialectic. As we have seen, Hegel considers developments in a culture to come about through internal contradictions (an example of such a contradiction is the irrational situation that the freedom of some people in a society is based on the enslavement of others). Kierkegaard’s own, particular interpretation stresses ‘mediation’ as this process of development: it is worth noting that this arguably does not do full justice to the nature of Hegel’s method, in which opposites are not merely mediated but ‘sublated’.


Reading Questions


  1. How would you describe Kierkegaard’s project, based on the first two short extracts – the fragment from his journals and his ‘main thought’ (p.59 of reader)?


I would describe Kierkegaard’s project as one in which there is a reaction against the dominant Hegelianism but more generally a very personal reaction against the shortcomings of philosophy to provide a truth which is true for him. What this means is up for interpretation but I think it is an accurate suggestion to say that Keirkegaard is expressing the culmination of that radical birth of subjectivity first revealed by Kant and then developed by Hegel. At the same time we should consider that this thinker is known as the father of Existentialism and this thought deals with the question of being and freedom directly. For Kierkegaard, ‘My main thought was that in our time, due to the quantity of knowledge, one has forgotten what it is to exist and what inwardness means.’ Might we characterise his project as precisely as a journey to understand what this inwardness might mean?


  1. What is the essence of philosophy, according to the ‘Ecstatic lecture’?


According to the Ecstatic lecture at first glance we might read as being a penultimate pessimism that construes the essence of philosophy as an either/or that centres around a suicidal gambit. Either you do or you do not but ultimately you will be disappointed with both decisions. Is this then a call for contentment? That, philosophy has become a practice of negotiating, even appreciating contradiction, rather than resolving them?


  1. Kierkegaard’s ethicist states that there is a certain resemblance between the aesthete’s attitude to life and the attitude to life of the common, that is, Hegelian philosophy (170-172). Neither can incite ‘a human being to act’ (175), that is, confront people with the possibility to choose (for) him/herself. What is the ethicist’s understanding of the similarity and the difference between the aesthete’s views and Hegelian philosophy?


The ethicist’s understanding of this connection centres around the relation between thinking and practice. Keirkegaard says that a person who only makes an aesthetic decision they miss the a higher potentiality and resign to weak aspiration, a Spiritus Lenis. This Existentialist King goes on to describe a difficulty in separating the aesthete and the ethical choices and that one is situated in the area of action, and philosophy in the area of contemplation. Similarities exist in the claims to touch upon the infinite, ‘In choosing the personality declares itself in its inner infinity and in turn the personality is thereby consolidated.’ The difference, for me is harder to fully confirm but in the text there is a certain critical flavour towards the Hegelianism in that it requires generation after generation to exist of contemplation because it has brought about the end of history […]  


  1. At 170, the ethicist states that philosophy is directed toward the past, whereas he himself is directed toward the future. What does he mean by that? Do you think that it is possible for philosophy to pose, and answer, the question concerning the future? Or does this question merely concern the individual person qua individual person?


It is possible to hastily utter that this describes philosophy as a dead practice because of its unbreakable anchor to the past. Yet, there is more to it – when the ethicist engages in a philosophical discussion he claims to have never identified himself as a philosopher, he instead chooses to appear as a married man – both a most meaningful occupation and an act of teasing. This then moves forwards and the ethicist wishes to warn his interlocutor not to sacrifice his life to deceptions. Offering a conclusive attack that singing a joyful praise over existence is conductive to the then philosophy’s notion that the principle of non contradiction had been cancelled. The question is a very inspiring one. My answer will be both, philosophy and art have to do both pose a question regarding the future, and articulate and position individuals adjacent to other individuals.



  1. The ethicist maintains that he defends freedom (p. 176). The same can be said, in my view, of Kierkegaard. Such a position entails that Kierkegaard cannot prescribe people how to live their lives. Nevertheless, he reproaches philosophy for keeping at bay the question of existential choices of the individual. Do you think that Kierkegaard is able to make his readers conscious of these possible choices without taking away their freedom?


Yes he succeeds in this even though his capacity to offer a definitive suggestion of how to live your life. But, nevertheless Kiekegaard’s sentences combine to culminate in a brutally honest yet pseudonymous exploration of the differing but connected relation between philosophy, life, and freedom. He asks, states, that he wants to know which life is higher; the philosopher’s or the free man’s? The philosopher fully engaged in philosophy misses an important thing, ‘he gains the whole world, but he loses himself.’ Here Kierkegaard fully reveals his claim to philosophical genius, to rival that of any other thinker.


‘In my previous letter, I noted that to have loved gives a person’s being harmony that is never entirely lost. Now I will say that to choose gives a person’s being a solemnity, a quiet dignity, that is never entirely lost.’


Now, I say this because Keirkegaard is one of the most creative of thinkers his manner of communication is both direct addressing you the reader and through his use of many characters shrouding meaning in a web of ambiguity. This is for me a very successful methodology to really hit home with his aim of heightening consciousness to be aware of the absolute either/or. I also want to make one more point regarding the last question it is my humble opinion that philosophy like art is natural and I would suggest that we humans are all artists throughout our lives and then when the end comes… death turns even those unused, and unwilling to think philosophically, into philosophers – you will philosophise when you approach the end this is as natural as breathing.


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