The Rise of Individualist Anxiety: Kierkegaard on Antiquity and Modernity

Work on Søren Kierkegaard regarding his contributions on politics, ethics and aesthetics suggests to me he is one of the great thinkers about the historical nature of the concepts involved, though that is certainly not the the limit of his contributions. He can be seen as following on from Hegel in some of this historical consciousness, but his approach is also very distinct. Kierkegaard does not offer a total historical grasp, with everything integrated into the unfolding of consciousness (or logic or right or nature). Kierkegaad’s historical consciousness is expressed in a much more fragmented and dispersed way, with insights scattered throughout his work.

The nearest he comes to a complete historical overview is in his master’s thesis (the master’s thesis of that time was evidently the equivalent of a later doctoral thesis), The Concept of Irony, which must be a strong candidate for greatest ever work written for the purposes of fulfilling the requirements of a higher degree. The Concept of Irony is divided between considerations of irony in the time of Socrates, and largely with regard to Socrates as he appears in Plato’s dialogues; and considerations of irony in the philosophy, aesthetic theory and literature of German Idealism and Romanticism. There is a central contrast around the grounded nature of irony in Socrates compared with the later thinkers. Socratic irony does refer to his personality and the position he has on ethics and knowledge, which has an element of scepticism, but not of the dogmatic scepticism for its own sake that Kierkegaard associates with philosophy since Descartes.  Kierkegaard understands the more recent irony to be more self-reflective and detached from the reality of the subject who produces those views, so that any sense of a real subject, the concrete individual (Enkelte) that Kierkegaard centrally values throughout his writing, is lost. However, this is not an absolute distinction, since Kierkegaard finds that the degree to which the reality of subjectivity is lost, and irony becomes pure self-reflective, is different between different thinkers. To some degree he is in sympathy with Hegel on this point, though he is less negative than Hegel about the philosophy and aesthetics of irony.

Kierkegaard’s early account of irony is in large measure an early version of his account of the ‘aesthetic’ which in Kierkegaard is more an aesthetic detached attitude to life rather than a concern with art and beauty, though he does incorporate discussion of the second into discussion of the first.  The aesthetic is largely a modern category for Kierkegaard, at least when taken in separation from ethics. The aesthetic, the ethical and the religious are the major stages of consciousness for Kierkegaard, and could be understood as stages of subjectivity, universality and the absolute. The aesthetic at its most intense is self-preoccupation, which includes laughter, anxiety, melancholy, and a fragmented moment-by-moment attitude to life. This does not exist in such a pure form in the ancient world, and we  can see part of why Kierkegaard thinks so in The Concept of Irony. Socrates is not preoccupied with a subjectivity so focused on the moment that it loses any substance. He is a participant in city life and civic duties, even if isolated from and critical of its politics.  Later writing by Kierkegaard suggests that the ancient city state provides a support for the individual which relieves the individual from the possibility of s melancholic absorption in the changeable natıre of subjectivity. In the ancient polis, religion, ethnic origin and legal-political state all converge to provide a structure within which individuals can live. The effect is to relieve individuals of the burden of complete self-responsibility and self-reference, which allows for a kind of happiness otherwise impossible. It certainly allows a solidity and endurance for the state, so that politics is not an alien sphere in relation to individuality. The split between individual and political sphere does not exist in the way known to moderns, as it is the business of a city state in which public business is the business of everyone in a direct kind of way.

A kind of happiness is possible in antiquity, in the ethical and political spheres, which are more obviously intertwined in the antique world than the modern world, a kind of happiness which is not possible in the modern world. Some of this comes out of previous discussions of the contrast between the world of the ancients and the world of the moderns in the historical consciousness of the Enlightenment and of German Idealism.  However, there is a distinct element of Kierkegaard’s argument which is typical of him: Christianity destroyed the happiness of antiquity. Not only has modern complexity undermined the apparently happy possibility of identifying self with city-state, the Christian belief in fall, sin and individual responsibility for the evil deeds of the individual or the the hope for salvation has destroyed happiness. Anxiety and melancholy are really Christian moods. They are moods of alienation from God, but they are moods which must be encountered and experienced deeply to achieve the goals of Christianity. The individual can only be worthy of the greatest possibility integration of self with the absolute through experiencing the emptiness and weakness of the self before the absolute.  We can put this in a more sociological or philosophy of history frame, in which the anxiety and melancholy of the modern individual comes from social changes, but Kierkegaard’s argument is one of ideational influence on history. This does not necessarily make him the enemy of history and social science. It was Max Weber, the great sociologist, who argued that the rise of capitalism could only be fully understood with reference to the ideational force of Calvinist Christianity. Amongst current writers, Deirdre McCloskey, author of Bourgeois Virtues and Bourgeois Dignity is the one I am most ware of who has emphasised that cultural and ethical changes of a kind which cannot be reduced to economics are necessary to the emergence of capitalism.



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5 thoughts on “The Rise of Individualist Anxiety: Kierkegaard on Antiquity and Modernity

  1. What drew me to Kierkegaard is what he had to say about complementarity. Have you written anything on complementarity? In an sense you are involved in complementarity when you pair philosophers together, like Foucault and Smith.

    • David, sorry I couldn’t deal with this earlier. It by complementarity you mean the term as used in quantum mechanics I feel very unqualified to answer unfortunatuely. It seems likely but not certain that Bohr read Kierkegaard, that’s about the limit of what I can say. If you mean is there a relation between Kierkegaard and another philosopher like that between Foucault and Smith, without any reference to the relations of quantum mechanics, there are a few possibilities. One might be the relation between Kierkegaard and the Pagan sceptic Sextus Empricus, or possibly the more direct relation between Kierkegaard and Augustine. Or what appears to be amore direct relation, Kierkegaard says very little directly. I’ve read some Augustine while thinking about this, but I have not come to much of a conclusion yet. I’m working on it in the context of Kierkegaard on free will, anxiety, and sin.

  2. Barry, I should have been clearer with my question. But if I may, here is a letter of mine on the subject that a philosophy magazine published:

    Dear Editor: The article ‘Complementarity & Reality’ by Sir Alistair MacFarlane in Issue 80 coincided with my reading Quantum by Manjit Kumar, in which I first read about the Complementarity Principle fathered by Niels Bohr. Bohr arrived at the principle by studying the works of Kierkegaard, Hoffding and James – philosophers who wrote about the complementarity in human thought and its applications. I was so taken by the concept that I had to read anything I could on the subject, including ‘The Roots of Complementarity’ by Gerald Holton. One thing that article didn’t identify as a root of complementarity is the human mind; but the human mind is the chief source, since it is itself constructed in a complementary manner, through two complementary hemispheres. If we didn’t have this brain complementarity we couldn’t function.

    MacFarlane writes that the complementarity principle “has not yet played a major role in philosophy.” But philosophy has many complementary attributes. To start, its accumulated knowledge, when engaged, unearths complementaries such as dualities, paradoxes and contradictions, which in turn uncover other complementarities such as dialectical thinking. Kant couldn’t have reached his momentous insights without drawing on complementary sources, for example, Berkeley and Rousseau, nor without complementarity philosophizing. And philosophy gets its unavoidably complementarity nature from its origin and conversing partner, the human brain.

    Philosophy may not outwardly display its complementarity skills, but through history it has searched out and brokered tangible complementarity usages, culminating in practical and successful complementary means of governance and of dealing with the human condition. One reason we philosophize is to reach satisfactory but complementary conclusions.

    Philosophy without complementarity would be akin to a lover without passion.

    • Thanks David

      Because Kieekegaard was a dialecrical thinker, who refers to a dialectic of the absurd, and the centrality of the paradox to philosophy, any relationship he has with an earlier philosopher could be defimed as complementarity. Hegel is the most important relation, so that is perhaps where the complementarity is best located. Hamann, Kant, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Schelling, Augustine and Plato could also be taken in that way in relation to Kierkegaard.

  3. Lately I have been thinking about how superficial our world is. I think this superficiality was beginning to develop and take off during the time of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I think they grasped the absurdity and irony of it but also understood that it was essential to our coping and mastering the world. This superficiality also produced a disconnect in us and thus a rise in anxiety that both men tried to explain.

    However, I don’t think our superficiality is totally a bad thing. It has in many ways made the world better, in an ironic way. By pretending to care and having people telling us we should care the world has become a more human place. Most of us give to charities and do volunteer work in an a superficial manner. But it is better than not.

    I am trying to understand how Niels Bohr came to his complementarity principle. I understand it had to do with a serious misdeed one of his children perpetrated. He had mixed emotions about what his child had done, which he had difficulty in dealing with because, as he thought, no child of his would do such a thing. I still don’t quite understand what it all means. But I think it has to do with what we sense, with senses that often oppose each other but eventually are reconciled in some way. The complementary behavior of our senses it what truly makes us human.

    This all may sound like a rambling on my part. Nevertheless, I find it a good way of developing thoughts and insight.

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