Kierkegaard on Individuality, Contradiction and History: The Concept of Anxiety I. §1

Søren Kierkegaard’s (writing under the pseudonym of Vigilius Haufniensis) Introduction to The Sickness unto Death took up quite a large number of posts recently (use search window to find relevant posts). The plan is to cover the main body of the book as well, but at a brisker pace.

Part I has the title of ‘Anxiety as the Presupposition of Hereditary Sin and as Explaining Hereditary Sin Retrogressively in Terms of its Origin’, and starts with § 1 Historical Intimations Regarding the Concept of Hereditary Sin, which is what is covered in this post.

The point of the title is very simple, but maybe not in a way that is very apparent since Kierkegaard did not really write in a simple way. There is always a point to the complexity, it is always explicable complexity not obscurantism, but he does have complex allusive and dialectic (or dialogical) style holding together competing views as he seeks the best possible resolution of the tensions between ideas. I haven’t quoted much in these posts, but I will insert one quotation below which addresses Kierkegaard’s own way of writing while addressing a specific issue of the relation between the individual and the human race.

At every moment, the individual [Individet] is both himself and the race. This is man’s perfection viewed as a state. It is also a contradiction, but  a contradiction is always the expression of a task [en Opgave], and a task is a movement, but a movement that as a task is the same as that to which the task is directed in an historical moment. Hence the individual has a history. But  if the individual has a history, then the race also has a history (IV 301 [Kierkegaard standard Danish edition]/ 28-29 [Princeton University Press translation].

As will be explained momentarily, it is vital to Kierkegaard at this point that the individual is that individual and is the human race. We can take the brief discussion of the  contradiction in the identity between individual and human race, as something of broad interest to understanding Kierkegaard’s way of writing and thinking. The contradiction has a positive existence, as a movement. The idea of something kinetic in thought, concerned with physical movement, sometimes appears in Kierkegaard. Contradiction (en modsigelse) is an incitement to movement in thought and in the interaction of the individual with the collective. The idea of contradiction is evidently linked with that of paradox (paradox, paradoks), which Kierkegaard declares in Philosophical Crumbs (Philosophiske Smuler, also translated as Philosophical Fragments) to be the passion of thought, and that without paradox the thinker is like a lover without passion. Philosophical Crumbs and The Concept of Anxiety were published in the same year (1844). The contradiction is a task expressed as a movement, presumably the task of ending the contradiction. The movement is that to which the task is directed in a historical moment, so that the existence of a task, and the contradiction behind, is the starting point of historical awareness.

The contextual issue of the quotation above is that Kierkegaard wishes to avoid the idea that ‘hereditary sin’ is to be understood as brought into the world by Adam, who has sin in a different way from all the humans who inherit sin from Adam. If we understand Adam as standing outside history in the uniqueness  of the way he experiences sin, then we are faced with a contradiction since Adam is human, and cannot be standing aside from humanity. Kierkegaard criticises some versions of Protestantism, along with the whole of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity for subscribing to the idea of Adam distinct from the human race as a whole. Kierkegaard exempts the writings of Church Fathers and the original Protestant Reformers from his criticisms. This still leaves him criticising ‘Federal Theolology’, a variation of Protestantism in which Adam stood for the whole of humanity as a ambassador in relations with God. Adam cannot stand outside humanity without contradiction and that contradiction is best resolved by referring to the individual as part of a race, and to the race as concerned with individuals. Kierkegaard is saying in a slightly round about way that any special status for Adam, if not just an error, is a way of giving force to the idea of the sinful nature of human individuals. Kierkegaard also casts doubt on an an important document in the history of Lutheranism, to which he was connected through the doctrines of the Danish national church, the Formula of Concord (1577). He thinks of that as putting too much weight on human sin, as turning humanity into just being sinful. However, he also appreciates the way that this essentialism pushes the idea of sinful human nature to a limit where it begins to collapse. Obsession with sin becomes an excess, like a girl in love, in which the sense of sin is held onto in an exaggerated way as a misguided attempt to compensate for sin.

The correct way to understand ‘hereditary sin’ is not that it is inherited from Adam, but that we all have the same character as Adam, because we are all part of the hıman race. We are therefore all susceptible to sin, and we are all struggling with sin, in search of Christ’s help in the matter. This is what unifies our individual existence and the historical existence of the race, so it is sin that gives us an historical existence. Implicit in all this is a wish to satisfy Enlightenment concerns that Christianity rests on implausible history (there was a first man called Adam) and a cruel doctrine in which we punished for sins which rise up in us beyond our control. Kierkegaard’s account does not directly challenge the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story, but it makes the story unnecessary, along with ethically disturbing notions of God punishing us for something Adam did.


One thought on “Kierkegaard on Individuality, Contradiction and History: The Concept of Anxiety I. §1

  1. Excellent explanation. I’ve been struggling with this passage for a while. Seems to be the hinge of the whole book in my opinion. Thanks for explaining contradiction as a task and those implications on history.

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