Kierkegaard on the Aesthetic and Ethical Stages

Kierkegaard discusses the aesthetic stage according to which the ethical stage is emergent in the aesthetic attitude as a way of living, and is only complete when developed in the universality of the ethical stage and then the absoluteness of the religious stage, though not in a way which leads to the destruction of the aesthetic stage. His approach to the three stages is formulated in a way of writing that enacts the themes he articulates, making a performance of them in his philosophical literature so adding something to the understanding of aesthetic norms itself.

In this aspect of Kierkegaard’s work, one of his two major attempts at theorising the aesthetic stage is as part of text in which the issues of relation between literature and philosophy, the representation of the aesthetic in writing, and the limits of language are very present as objects of discussion and as part of the way of writing. That is in ‘The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical-Erotic’, which is the third heading within Either/Or I,  the part of Either/Or that deals with the aesthetic stage of life. It contains a discussion of the hierarchy of arts and the role of opera as the highest art. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is offered as the purest achievement of opera, and therefore as possessing a special place in the discussion of art and aesthetics.

The context offered by Either/Or is as part of a book in which philosophy is presented as a playful fiction, saying something about the norms of philosophical reason, and what they might include. Kierkegaard published Either/Or, like may of his books, under the pseudonym of a supposed editor of some papers by multiple authors, though not with any expectation that anyone would be deceived about Kierkegaard’s authorship. The use of pseudonyms, here and elsewhere in Kierkegaard’s output, is a device for leading the reader to question the boundaries between fictional writing and philosophical discourse, aesthetic play and literal communication, so is one way in which Kierkegaard argues for norms of philosophical reason in which aesthetic practice is part of philosophical argumentation.

The issues of philosophy, fictionality, their norms and their boundaries had recently been discussed by Kierkegaard in a more thematic way in The Concept of Irony, which makes up Kierkegaard’s other major work on aesthetics. What he was concerned with there is the place of irony, and its norms in the thought of Socrates as it appears in Plato’s dialogues, followed by a discussion of the relation between that Socratic irony and the idea of irony as it appears in Jena Romantic aesthetics.

Kierkegaard discusses the Romantic Ironists, along with the origins of their aesthetic thought in the early philosophy of Fichte. The focus on irony builds up an understanding of aesthetic and philosophical norms, according to which philosophy and literature converge in a kind of writing where there is a shifting point of view, and variability with regard to the status of any particular thesis.

Kierkegaard suggests that irony is part of the subjective attitude which is essential to the existence of an aesthetic event. He further suggests that philosophical communication begins with the subjectivity necessary to aesthetic norms. Aesthetic objects, in this case the literary object, cannot be discussed in isolation from their presence in subjectivity, so any discussion of the aesthetic stage is a discussion of how the stages emerge in subjectivity.

Kierkegaard defines the aesthetic as subjective, and as leading into the ethical which is universal, though rooted in the aesthetic as aesthetic events reach a universal status.The highest stage is that of religion, which in terms of philosophical communication is a relation with the absolute. That is the absolute in philosophy, emergent from and conditioned by subjectivity so that the aesthetic stage is never simply superseded or obliterated.

The aesthetic as philosophy of art and beauty art, is an aspect of the aesthetic as an attitude to life. The aesthetic attitude emphasises subjective immediacy, which The Concept of Irony suggests can be brought into philosophy on the model of Plato’s dialogues, along with example of the Jena Romantics in combining philosophical and literary writing. Kierkegaard suggests norms in which the most valuable kind of literary writing does not become caught in irony in a way that undermines subjectivity, in which the originating subjectivity is obliterated rather than just brought into an interaction of original intention and possible interpretations. The language that Kierkegaard develops for literary aesthetics includes a place in building up the aesthetic-ethical which lead the individual to a passion of subjectivity, experiencing an absolute relation with the absolute.

Returning to Either/Or, the elevation of Don Giovanni focuses on the energy of the seducer hero-villain, which permeates all the music of the opera in Kierkegaard’s analysis. This can be the case, because music has a pure status amongst the arts with regard to immediacy and the experience of sensuality. This purity of music, reminiscent of the status accorded to music in Schopenhauer, is not however enough to make it the highest art form in its pure form. Opera is higher than orchestral music alone, because the words of the libretto, the existence of ideational content, itself brings out something in the music, so that its immediacy is better grasped through text that brings out the possibilities of what immediacy might be as an attitude to life.

The libretto allows an articulation of how the Don’s obsession with an increasing number of seductions, and his willingness to use violence in the course of that obsession, is an outcome of a concern with aesthetic immediacy, which fails to deal with anything other than the sensuality of the moment. The ethical stage emerges in response to the dangers of failing to move beyond a purely subjective communication to universality in communication, though conditioned by subjectivity, and then the absolute foundation of ethics, or the paradoxes around establishing an absolute foundation for ethics in relation to the inevitably subjective origin of ethical universality.

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