A Beginners Introduction Guide to Kierkegaard
"I have been to the brink of oblivion and I remember nothing more than a fermented desire to remember everything" --Waking Life
The Scientist and The Storyteller Metaphor and Language
In this article I will endeavor to outline Sǿren Kierkegaard for beginners. This article is meant to serve as an introduction and is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the writer, but hopefully you will have an understanding of the basics and a good direction for further reading.
Kierkegaard is my favorite philosopher because after reading his books I was able to reconcile religion or rather theology with philosophy. Some people prefer an analytic approach to philosophy, and although I have found much of this thinking very helpful it is a bit stuffy, who wants to decode symbolic logic all day? I am more interested in the use of metaphor and the telling of stories. Science creates a theory and assumes it as an end all answer until an anomaly arrives, for instance the unexplainable wobble in Neptune’s orbit is what lead to the discovery of Pluto. The theory was reworked to include the new planet, or whatever they decided it is now. With storytelling there is only a glimpse of the truth and the story never ends, and the words of a very wise professor have always stuck with me, “We are the stories we tell”.
Kierkegaard was able to help me know more about the intricacies of that human emotion we call love and the virtue called grace. He liked to tell stories and would never use his own name, rather pen names that reflected some meaning of the story. He had very Christian motivations and successfully masked them in his presentation, he only directly mentions Christian words and concepts when he writes under his own name in non-philosophical works. The fact that he is my favorite philosopher may appear odd then considering I practice Judaism. It shouldn’t matter that Aslan is a metaphor for Jesus, C.S. Lewis wrote some damn good stories. Plus many devout Christians like Kierkegaard, Lewis, and Tolkien bring the theology discussion to a point where a Jewish background has a useful concept map to work from that may actually be more adaptable than traditional Christian thinking.
Science uses terms that in philosophy of language are referred to as extensional. This means it is what is called referentially transparent. Any word that means the same thing may be substituted without changing the truth value. For instance, assuming Spiderman is a real person in the world I might say, “Peter Parker is a photographer.” or “Peter Parker can shoot webs from his wrists.” Regardless of if I use ‘Spiderman’ instead of ‘Peter Parker’ as the referential to the real entity the statement will not change in whether or not it is true or false. Then there is intentional language that is referentially opaque, if I were to say, “Harry Osborne believes Peter Parker is a great guy” and then were to replace Peter Parker with Spiderman as the referent, the statement would change from true to false. This inability to change the referent to something that means the same thing is noted by the presence of an intentional verb or hidden intentionality. In other words, to describe the sensation of pain is not scientific but requires a metaphor because the concept of ‘pain’ is inherently subjective in its nature and implies hidden intentionality. Since pain is very real to a lot of people, understanding it and stepping outside of the thesis of extensionality is an important endeavor as long as neuroscience, behaviorism and cognitive behaviorism cannot yet scientifically define it in extensional terms.
With that being said Kierkegaard and all philosophers who use metaphor to make their point get at things Science never can. The claim that the boiling point of water is 100 degrees Celsius is regarded as either true or false whereas a good metaphor is known to be literally false. “Las Vegas is Sodom” is only ever partially true, obviously the cities are not the same, one existed in Abrahamic times and the other is around today. The statement still means something and to use a term from President Bush, in metaphor we are getting at the truthiness of given claims. Confucius say, “Are you a man dreaming you are a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming you are a man?”
Rotation of Crops
Normally the phrase goes, ‘sickness unto health’ but in true existential fashion the title of Kierkegaard’s book is Sickness Unto Death. A lot of people at first glance see the existentialists as dark thinkers falling into the depths of despair. This may be true at times but to me it is the most inspirational kind of philosophy out there. In example one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes is, “The higher you soar the smaller you appear to those who cannot fly.” But back into the darkness, what is the ‘sickness’ of the human condition? Kierkegaard believed it was boredom. "Boredom is the root of all evil; the despairing refusal to be oneself."
It is this lack of fulfillment and our own wanton distraction that causes suffering in this world. The old proverb says that ‘the rich man is the one who is content with what he has’ and in Buddhist philosophy suffering is described as ‘the want not to suffer’ and even in Western Civilization the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, said as much in so many words. There is one proven way to not be bored and the answer lies in using the Biblical concept of ‘crop rotation’ as a metaphor. The Israelites were told not to plant the same crop every season and to leave the field barren once every seven years. If we transfer this practice to metaphorical ‘crops’ that represent our different life activities, we are able to escape boredom.
This is because a fundamental aspect of Kierkegaardian philosophy is the ability to know what you want. To quote Chuck Palahniuk: “If you don’t know what you want,” the doorman said, “you end up with a lot you don’t.” –Fight Club Chapter 5. For Kierkegaard desire is the first of what I will later refer to as triggers. This brings us to the whole idea of stages in life that operate in accordance to specific triggers. Before that discussion however it should be noted that there is some debate about the Kierkegaardian stages of life. Some believe that they are on a continuum and a person may be in multiple stages at once. Although this is an interesting reading for the purposes of this article it will be assumed that the stages are mutually exclusive of each other and operate in a hierarchical structure.
The Four Stages:
1) The Uninitiated: This is what I like to call being stuck on autopilot. A person goes through the motions of life but is not really living. They do everything they believe they are supposed to do without enacting the freedom of a true self. Kierkegaard himself liked to use the metaphor for this stage as ‘an ant in the ant-colony’. The word uninitiated is often used to refer to this concept but I believe it is a Platonic term that deals with something much deeper. Many ancient thinkers from Plato to Cicero, probably people even today, all belongs to a little cult vaguely known as The Mysteries. At some time they believed to have died or had some sort of out of body experience, probably with the assistance of a hallucinogen known as urgot. Afterwards they had a newfound love of life and firmly believed in the concept of ‘the transmigration of the soul’ which should not be confused with crude notions of reincarnation. For Kierkegaard initiation is leaving the world of ants in the colony and taking one step closer to being human.
2) The Aesthetic Stage: The trigger of initiation is desire. Only once someone realizes that there is something in the world they want but cannot have, are they capable of having a true self. Once desire enters the picture, the person will go about trying to fulfill these desires. Reason is the driving capacity for the aesthetic life, it is used to go about fulfilling desires. Some people may be stuck in this phase their entire life and know only selfishness, which is better I suppose than never wanting thus remaining a selfless cog in the human hive-mind.
3) The Ethical Stage: The trigger out of the Aesthetic into the Ethical is guilt. After living a life of satisfying desire the person will realize at some point the existence of not only the self but the other. Probably through the course of personal hedonism the aesthetic person has greatly wronged other people. Once guilt is felt the person can no longer selfishly fulfill their own desires, rather they co-align their desire with that of other people and work collectively to build a better world. Reason is important still and has its uses but the main driving capacity of this phase is ethical reasoning. Instead of merely asking, “is X possible?” the question changes to something like, “ought I do X?” Again, for many people the story ends here, in fact for most people this is where it ends.
4) The Religious Stage: Even living an ethical life is not enough. We seem so insignificant compared to the cosmos. We are nothing more than a speck of dust and anything we do, even a blessed ethical life, is ultimately meaningless. The trigger into the religious phase is not being satisfied with merely the ethical and yearning for something more. This is called despair. Unlike the other triggers merely knowing despair does not uplift one into the religious phase of life, it only renders the individual as what is called a Knight of Despair. This stage is very mysterious and it is difficult to say whether or not Kierkegaard himself would have claimed knowledge of it first hand or if it is merely theoretical. Very few people ever come to know this stage of life and those that do are Knights of Faith.
The Knight of Faith
This is my favorite part in Kierkegaard! He asks us to pretend for a moment that we are Abraham. God tells us to kill our son that we were promised generations through ‘as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands by the sea’. If this were to happen today people would probably assume they were insane and go see a shrink. Abraham on the other hand does not even question God and simply begins to obey. He is going to commit an act that is completely irrational and unethical. If he kills Isaac the generations promised cannot possibly be born and murder of one’s child is typically considered a heinous sin. Abraham has faith and knows that somehow everything will all be alright. This is the famous Kierkegaardian slogan, the teleological suspension of the ethical. The knight of faith knows when to abandon all rational and ethical thinking for some higher cause. To use another Kierkegaardian metaphor, like a dancer doing a leap in the air they have one fluid motion and land perfectly in accordance with the dance. The leap is one of faith and the capacity to know when to jump is grace. I particularly appreciated this part because whenever something bad happened in my life, instead of like many atheists becoming bitter at God, my mother used to always say, “Just another one of God’s dancing lessons”.
The Seducer and The Married Man
In another book Kierkegaard relays a diary from a Casanova or Don Juan. This individual is stuck in the aesthetic life and takes advantage of women by bedding them once and throwing them away. He is trying to find that ultimate moment. He glimpses eternity and desperately wants to be ‘the final kiss of the movie’. This is what is known as romantic love. It is the ultimate anticipation usually heightened by challenges. The tale would not be a romantic one if the lovers were not star-crossed, there must always be a proverbial dragon to slay. In response to this diary a married preacher replies. He outlines what is called conjugal love. This is about appreciating what you have already had and loving someone for what has actually happened between you. Unlike the romantic lover the married man not only glimpses eternity but may live in it as his love lasts potentially forever.
The ideal situation is when there is great romantic love in the form of anticipation and romantic challenges and the moment it is realized and the final kiss of the movie happens, it immediately becomes a deep conjugal love of appreciation. So love is really a balancing act between anticipation and appreciation. What I find particularly interesting is that the girls being seduced by the Casanova are uninitiated and it is not until ‘they realize there is something they want but cannot have’ in the form of the seducer, that they are uplifted into the aesthetic stage of life and take one step closer to being human.In that light the infamous Seducer is really not a bad guy afterall, just another soul on the journey out of the ant colony.