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Is Kierkegaard Still Relevant Today?
Lucian Lupescu says the disputatious Dane dares us to live.
There is a general tendency in the non-philosophical world to dismiss philosophy as being purely theoretical, with no connection to the types of problems that people are confronted within their everyday lives. But this is not necessarily true. Many philosophers struggled to find ways to improve people’s lives, by drawing attention to, and making people think about, fundamental aspects of life. A good example would be Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).
Kierkegaard portrait © Athamos Stradis 2010
Feeling discontent with Hegel’s then-dominant philosophical system (and with every other philosophy popular in his time), Kierkegaard sought to answer life’s questions by turning back to ancient times, and a thinker to whom he felt closer in mind and spirit. Socrates, ‘the gadfly of Athens’, became the role-model for the young Kierkegaard, who wanted to continue his spiritual mentor’s art of ‘philosophical midwifery’, and become himself ‘the gadfly of Copenhagen’. Just as Socrates did, Kierkegaard tried to challenge the common beliefs of his time. He wanted to show that the only truth that is important is subjective truth. For Kierkegaard, only through a deep and honest analysis of oneself, can one truly know what one is or is not, what are one’s values and beliefs, what are one’s truths.
Unlike Socrates, whose ideas we know only through other sources, Kierkegaard was a prolific writer. He left behind a collection of writings centered on particular themes and interests. His works may seem contradictory at first glance. However, on a closer reading, one can see that they follow the same ‘negative’ scheme as Socrates. The ancient philosopher believed that no one had a privileged claim to absolute knowledge (hence the title ‘negative’, as opposed to ‘positive’, philosophy), and that each individual can and should think for themselves and so find their own paths in life, and their own values. This can be done by a close examination of one’s thinking. Socrates called his technique of helping people become aware of their inner knowledge maieutic, or midwifery. Socrates humbled himself, claiming he didn’t know anything, and would ask his interlocutor a series of questions that aimed to reveal that person’s knowledge, or lack of it. These dialogues usually ended in aporia – a state of puzzlement about the subject being discussed, without finding a solution, but the person thus realizing his ignorance.
Kierkegaard embraced Socrates’ project, analyzing his own thinking, and in doing so, realized that:
“the thing is to find a truth which is a truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…. What use would it be in this respect if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems…? And what use would it be in that respect to be able to work out a theory of the state…which I myself did not inhabit but merely held up for others to see? What use would it be to be able to propound the meaning of Christianity, to explain many separate facts, if it had no deeper meaning for myself and my life? One must first learn to know oneself before knowing anything else… Only when the person has inwardly understood himself, and then sees the way forward on his path, does his life acquire repose and meaning.”
(Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, vol.1, p.22, 2008)
Kierkegaard used pseudonyms to, in a way, distance himself from the ideas in each book. Each persona is an embodiment of a way of seeing the world, a way of living your life. Across his works he suggests three main paths of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (for him, Christian). The aesthete sees the world through an interesting/boring dichotomy. For him, life is made to live, to experience, and there are no serious choices. Life is immediacy. For the ethicist, on the contrary, there are only serious choices. For him, life is what you make of it. It is not enough to just live it; you must make concrete choices that will give shape to your existence, to your self. Life is responsibility. The ethicist’s dichotomy is, let’s say, good versus evil. The Christian, on the other hand, acknowledges that you cannot succeed in creating a perfect self. But through faith in God’s forgiveness you can accept your imperfect condition, and live your life as yourself. However, although these options look a lot like they represent ultimate solutions, Kierkegaard’s life possibilities are just that – possibilities. None of them represents an ‘ultimate truth’. As Kierkegaard sees them, they are merely choices that one can make in one’s life.
Kierkegaard’s Socratic approach is still relevant because of its focus on the individual. Each of us feels the need for purpose. What Kierkegaard, and Socrates, teach us, is that this purpose can be gained only by our choices, our actions, the way we live our lives. No one, neither philosopher nor priest, can tell us who or what we are, or what we should do. We must discover and decide that for ourselves, in our inner, most intimate place, where we can make our true self come to light, then shine upon our own, singular path. It is important for us to know ourselves, to discover what are really our values, our beliefs – our truths – in order to live a more fulfilling life. It is important to know who we truly are, so that nobody can manipulate us into doing what is contrary to our inner selves.
Kierkegaard does not present us with absolute, objective truths, but challenges us to discover subjective truths for ourselves. He proposes to encourage us to become independent: “The phrase ‘know yourself’ means: separate yourself from the other” (The Concept of Irony, 1841, trans H.V. Hong and E.H. Hong, p.177, 1989). In the end, what Kierkegaard does is dare us to live, by choosing how we live, and by taking responsibility for our lives. Can we rise to his expectations?
© Lucian Lupescu 2016