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 ‘A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.’1

  • Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard (writing under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus) famously uses this description of the self at the beginning of The Sickness unto Death but since this definition is rather convoluted it will be the purpose of this essay to analyse how this concept of ‘the self’ is depicted throughout Kierkegaard’s works and how these works proved extremely influential to Heidegger’s formulation of Dasein. I will start with an analysis of the opening section of The Sickness unto Death in which the pseudonymous author Anti-Climacus articulates his conception of the self and the importance of spirit in formulating this conception. Secondly I shall analyse how Haufniensis’s views of the self in The Concept of Anxiety compare with those of Anti-Climcaus and show how these two similar conceptions can provide a good outline of Kierkegaard’s thought. Next I will give a summary of the concept of Dasein that Heidegger describes in Being and Time and discuss how influential Kierkegaard’s definition of the self was in Heidegger’s thought. Finally I shall aim to show how the idea of the subjective self as a relation of the infinite and the finite persists through Kierkegaard’s other books (namely Fear and Trembling) and how this relates to Dasein.

Anti-Climacus’s definition of the self as ‘a relation which relates to itself’2 in The Sickness unto Death is often looked at as an example of the overly convoluted nature of continental philosophy. However the passage that contains it is not impossible to decipher especially when considering other texts such as The Concept of Anxiety. Kierkegaard distinguishes the self from a human being by arguing that a human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, it is the relation of a finite being to the infinite world it exists in. However, to Anti-Climacus a human being is not synonymous with the self, the self is not merely the relation between two factors but is a relation which relates to itself. Thus, a human being, as a ‘synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity’3, has the potential to relate itself to itself, before this relation a human being cannot be considered a ‘self’. M. Jamie Ferreira summarises this point by stating that Anti-Climacus is suggesting ‘the self is a reflexive relation – the self is a relation to the second power’4.

Just how in The Sickness unto Death Anti-Climacus defines the human as a relation of the infinite and the finite, in Concept of Anxiety, the pseudonym Haufniensis argues that human beings are best understood as a synthesis between body and soul5. If we consider these descriptions together a picture starts to emerge. We are finite in the sense that we are limited in body; we are necessarily limited in both space and time (for example we cannot choose to travel to distant time and place on our own volition). We are also limited by the unalterable past experiences that shape our present. On the other hand we are infinite, we are unlimited in that we are free in the mind, we can envisage an infinite range of future possibilities for ourselves etc. However, these factors alone are not enough to make up what Kierkegaard refers to as the self, as Haufniensis writes ‘a synthesis is unthinkable if the two are not united in a third. This third is spirit.’6 Therefore, spirit is the necessary factor that distinguishes the idea of a mere human being from the self. If spirit is the self and the self is the ‘relation’s relating itself to itself’7 then we can conclude that spirit is the self’s relation to the infinite and the finite and thus it encompasses what it is to be an individual.

The precise definition of spirit in Kierkegaard’s work has been widely debated; however it is generally seen as being in direct contrast to Hegelian notion of Spirit or Geist. Whereas Hegel’s dialectical logic is focussed towards Geist as a systematic totality, a dialectical progression of reason in nature, Kierkegaard’s self seems to be focussed towards a form of radical existential individuality in which the subjective is viewed as higher than the objective. To summarise this point, J. Aaron Simmons describes that ‘[Kierkegaard’s] entire critique of Hegel centres on Hegel’s apparent conclusion that there was no singularity that could not be incorporated into the totality of Geist8’. Therefore, to Kierkegaard, Hegel’s system does not take into account the notion that ‘spirit is the self’; it loses the idea of one being unique and alone in oneself and thus the focus on the systematisation of totality is fundamentally flawed from Kierkegaard’s existential standpoint.

As we have seen, the self to Kierkegaard is a reflexive relation, it must reflect upon its own existence as the synthesis of the infinite and the finite and it is the knowledge of this existence that is signified by spirit. But as Anti-Climacus describes, a human is self by its degree of reflection: ‘With this certain degree of reflection begins the act of separation in which the self becomes aware of itself as essentially different from the environment and the external world’9. Here Kierkegaard draws some interesting parallels with Heidegger’s work in Being and Time. For Heidegger it is the question of Being (Sein) that is fundamental to his philosophy, our understanding of Being is both self-evident to us yet it is something that we often take for granted as somewhat indefinable. We seem to have a pre-conceptual idea of what Being is, yet when considering Being we seem to have limited ourselves to the study of ‘beings’ (seinen) not Being itself, or as T. B. Yagi states we ‘fail to penetrate it [Being] ontologically’10. To Heidegger, being qua being is not an entity in itself, it must be looked at differently from the way in which we look at beings (or entities that are). From this Heidegger develops the idea of Dasein. He argues that that to understand and answer the question of being we must look at the one asking the question. Even in inquiring as to what we mean by Being we find our own ‘mode of Being’11 and therefore our own asking of the question of Being is where we get our ‘essential character’12 of what it is to be. Yagi summarises this point excellently, ‘The unique entity which raises the question of Being is not a chair, a fork, or a tree; it is rather the sort of entity that can make Being as its concern and Heidegger calls this entity ‘Dasein’.13 In other words, Dasein is separate from other beings (chair, fork, etc.) in that it is concerned with its own Being. As far as we are aware a tree cannot be concerned with the issue of its own Being (the same can be said for other beings) yet we, as Dasein, are concerned with our own Being, our own existence and our own selves.

This self-questioning mode of existence that Dasein possesses is very similar to Kierkegaard’s conception of spirit that constitutes the self as a reflexive relation. The spirit that Kierkegaard defines seeks to move away from the objective, universal theories of Hegel and Kant that merely limit the individual as part of the universal. Kierkegaard’s point is that since our understanding is dependent on spirit and thus on the self, our understanding is necessarily subjective; any knowledge we gain (whether it be synthetic or analytic) always involves the self. However, this may seem that Kierkegaard is falling into the trap of the universal, if our knowledge is fundamentally subjective (and in that sense concerned with the self) is Kierkegaard not following the footsteps of Kant in forming a kind of transcendental idealism? In Fear and Trembling this is exactly the idea that the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio wishes to refute. As de Silentio states, ‘the single individual is higher than the universal, though in such a way, be it noted, that the movement is repeated, that is, that, having been in the universal the single individual now sets himself apart as the particular above the universal.’14 In the context of the self, what is important in this statement for Kierkegaard is that we cannot integrate fully our individual subjective experience into a universal system as this would ‘exclude any non-objective ground from the self’15. The paradox of the individual as higher than the universal is a paradox concerning faith in that it is precisely faith not reason, that allows the individual to step beyond the realm of the ethical into the absolute. Faith cannot be explained within the realm of reason; to Kierkegaard faith is a subjective decision that cannot be reached through this kind of rationality. Indeed, he writes, ‘objective acceptance of Christianity is paganism or thoughtlessness’16 by which he means that to have faith in God as a Christian requires the true acceptance of ones individuality, to believe in God by means of your default spatio-temporal location is not true faith in that you are not setting yourself apart as the ‘particular above the universal’, you are merely a Christian by means of the universal (as Hegel argues).

However, this passage can also be seen as a paradox of individuality, one that allows for the self to be defined outside the ethical. As something subjective cannot be defined within the objective, the universal is not what to look towards when making a subjective individual decision. In other words, similarly to Heidegger’s Dasein, we are not selves or beings separated from the world but we are fundamentally involved in our own existence, to confine the self within the universal as Hegel and Kant try to do is to deny our very nature. Therefore, the fundamental insight of Kierkegaard’s writing that was later so seemingly influential on Heidegger’s existential analysis was that Kierkegaard saw the self as something other than a category of thought. For the self (as a subject) to be it must exist. Existence is therefore a way of being rather than a mere category of thought and this precisely why the self should not be limited by the universal.

Another interesting comparison between the self and Dasein arises when considering the ability to envisage or project other possibilities for itself. Dasein, for Heidegger, is a form of being that is in a constant state of relation to itself (much like the self is for Kierkegaard) through a form of willing or un-willing projection that Heidegger calls ‘the power of reticent self-projection’17. Just as Dasein is concerned with its own Being, it is only through this form of self-projection that it is possible for it to be concerned with its own non-Being. Dasein is unique in the sense that in its own existence it is also aware of the possibility and, indeed the necessity, of its non-existence. More specifically it is a fundamentally important issue for Dasein that it can envisage the inability to project its ‘possibility-for-being’18; it can anticipate a future in which it itself does not have the possibility to exist. While other objects i.e. chairs etc. simply are, Heidegger’s Dasein and Kierkegaard’s self-reflecting self exist and only those beings that exist can anticipate their non-existence. In other words it is only those beings that exist that can die. Thus for Heidegger this death is not merely something that is coming to Dasein in the future, it is something Dasein knows as a strong possibility and it is for this reason he defines Dasein as a ‘Being-towards-death’19. This anticipation of death is what allows Dasein to see itself as a relation of the infinite and the finite in the sense that it is Dasein itself, as a temporal finite being, that must project its own mortality (amongst the infinite other possibilities it could envisage) to truly become itself.

In conclusion, we can see how Kierkegaard’s influence allowed Heidegger to formulate an existential analysis of self without being bound within the confines of religion. However, that is not to say that Kierkegaard’s thought, theological as it is, is not extremely important in its own right and indeed as a revolutionary as a driving force behind the existentialist movement of the twentieth century. Thus the essential point that is picked up on by both Heidegger and Kierkegaard is that the self is something that is fundamentally subjective, it is something that the universal theories of Hegel and Kant seem to ignore, yet it is something that is essential to each and every individual. In summary, as Haufniensis states, ‘this is the wonder of life, that each man who is mindful of himself knows what no science knows, since he knows who himself is’20.

Notes

1 Kierkegaard, S. (2004) The Sickness unto Death. A. Hannay, Trans. London: Penguin. p.13

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ferreira, J. M. (2009) Kierkegaard. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. p.152

5 Kierkegaard, S. (1980) The Concept of Anxiety. R. Thomte, Trans. Princeton: Princeton UP. p.85

6 Ibid., p.43

7 Kierkegaard, S. (2004) The Sickness unto Death. A. Hannay, Trans. London: Penguin. p.13

8 Simmons, J A., Wood, D. (2008) Kierkegaard and Levinas ethics, politics, and religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p.154

9 Kierkegaard, S. (2004) The Sickness unto Death. A. Hannay, Trans. London: Penguin. p.85

10 Yagi, T. B. (2009) Beyond Subjectivity: Kierkegaard’s self and Heidegger’s Dasein. Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy. p.65

11 Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans. San Francisco: Harper. p.27

12 Ibid.

13 Yagi, T. B. (2009) Beyond Subjectivity: Kierkegaard’s self and Heidegger’s Dasein. Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy. p.65

14 Kierkegaard, S. (2003) Fear and Trembling. London: Penguin. p.85

15 Yagi, T. B. (2009) Beyond Subjectivity: Kierkegaard’s self and Heidegger’s Dasein. Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy. p.67

16 Kierkegaard, S., (2009) Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.p.108

17 Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans. San Francisco: Harper. p.352

18 Ibid., p.181

19 Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans. San Francisco: Harper. p.294

20 Kierkegaard, S. (1980) The Concept of Anxiety. R. Thomte, Trans. Princeton: Princeton UP.p79

Bibliography 

Ferreira, J. M. (2009), Kierkegaard. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. (1962), Being and Time. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans. San Francisco: Harper.

Kierkegaard, S., (2009), Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, S. (2003), Fear and Trembling. London: Penguin. p.85

Kierkegaard, S. (1980), The Concept of Anxiety. R. Thomte, Trans. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Kierkegaard, S. (2004), The Sickness unto Death. A. Hannay, Trans. London: Penguin.

Simmons, J A., Wood, D. (2008), Kierkegaard and Levinas ethics, politics, and religion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Yagi, T. B. (2009), Beyond Subjectivity: Kierkegaard’s self and Heidegger’s Dasein. Perspectives: International Postgraduate Journal of Philosophy.

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