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Kierkegaard: Anxiety, Guilt and Despair

Updated on May 23, 2015

The Philosophy of Existence

The philosophy of existence is interesting first of all because it is compatible with the views of other fields of knowledge such as Psychology, Ethnography and Sociology. They have similar ideas about the basic circumstances of human life.

A very, if not the most, dominant man in this branch of philosophy is the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).
Kierkegaard died in 1855, but if we consider his aspects of life, his philosophy, it would only be fair to say that he was ahead of his time. We have only just in recent time come to an understanding of his ideas, and their importance have grown bigger over the years.
One of the interesting things about Kierkegaard is the fact that he has released his content using different pseudonyms. He later revealed that all of these works are indeed his, but initially they were thought to be published from different sources, and thereby a type of dialectic relation was established.

In this article it is of course completely impossible to give a proper and comprehensive summary of his philosophical universe; it is more important to isolate and present his main ideas.

Kierkegaard chooses the word "existence" to talk of the special form of life or "way of being" that characterizes humans. In his terminology, only humans exist. Animals and plants do not exist - instead they are just there - but in Kierkegaards sense of the word "exist", the animals do not apply to the definition.

What is existence?

The crucial question is: If existence is not the state of being there, being present, being, then what is it? The answer is, that existence is the same as being, but it is at the same time more than just that - at the same time, we are confronted with the requirement of adapting us to ourselves, so to speak. Human is not automatically itself, it has to become itself by personally overtake or claim itself as the person it really is. Human is supposed to want itself.

Naturally, the human being can choose not to honour this requirement; it can simply just let time pass by with diverse occupation within alot of subjects, in talkativity and curiosity and meddlesomeness. With that, many great achievements can follow, but the human never becomes itself. The reason is that the human being is dependant on various outer influences. When a human has not become itself, it is busy with becoming someone, achieving something, preferably something big and significant. Whether such a human is happy is highly dependant on how life carries out. If everything goes well, it will be happy - if things go wrong, it will be unhappy etc. It does not possess happiness within it, but reaches out for it in the outside world.

The Concept of Anxiety (Danish: Begrebet Angest): A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin
The Concept of Anxiety (Danish: Begrebet Angest): A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin

Despair, anxiety and guilt

To live in this way is something Kierkegaard likes to call "despair". It does not mean that the respective person is always in despair. He can very well feel comfortable, but his life is despair none the less, because it inevitably depends on something he has no power to control. Kierkegaards claim is that every human being has a requirement or desire to claim or become itself in a very different manner than this. The term he likes to use is "the eternal within the human". Human must in a whole other way acquire itself, possess its life by taking responsibility for it. This inner desire can strike at any time. When the human finds itself in an uncorfortable situation, a sudden realization perhaps, that life is nothingat the end of the day, that everything is eventually irrelevant and meaningless. This shows with the danish term "angst" - anxiety, which is different from the fear because it has no roots. Fear has a cause that we, in one way or another, are able to describe. Anxiety is however impossible to precisely describe or characterize.

Anxiety is according to Kierkegaard an expression of nothingness in humans. At the same time it expresses the potential that the human knows of. Something in the human could be achieved, but it has not yet been done perhaps. It is the possibilites that create these feelings of anxiety. According to Kierkegaard, human must realize its own opportunities, act accordingly, accept its own prerequisites and so on. When this is carried out, the human is finally deprived of its anxiety, and the human then becomes "valid", as Kierkegaard says. There is no such thing as good and evil, they are nothing but cultural constructions - the only validity of these terms lie within the fact that humans have accepted them within culture.

The significance of all this does not rely on the "outer task", but on the conscious choice, in which we have accepted it as our own task.
A whole other term that gains its importance in addition to this is the term "guilt", which Kierkegaard also likes to use. What is the meaning with a human becoming "guilty"?

This idea of "guilt" is very key to gaining even a remote understanding of Kierkegaards philosophy. One could say that every human being is born with certain qualities or properties, and one could then ask, how anyone could become guilty, when there is no such thing as free will(as Kierkegaard probably himself would have agreed). The freedom that Kierkegaard talks about is however another kind of freedom. It is the freedom of choosing oneself. The human being can either want iself, or not want itself. By wanting itself in the existentialist defintion that I have described, the human becomes "valid", and by not wanting itself it becomes guilty. The final twist is that by wanting itself, it has at the same time claimed its guilt: And only under these circumstances can a human being become what it truly is.


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