Kierkegaard and Existence – Lecture One

For the first three weeks of this course on Being and Time we are going to read three philosophers as background to the text: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Husserl. We are not reading them in terms of themselves, but only to the extent that they help us to better understand Being and Time. In this way, we are doing all three a disservice, because we cannot hope to be true to their philosophy by investigating what they have written in any depth. Hopefully, at some other time perhaps, if these philosophers interest you then, you can read them for themselves rather than just for Being and Time.

We are perhaps even doing a greater injury to Kierkegaard than the other two, because he expressly saw his writing as having a higher religious purpose than simply being a philosophical treatise or worse an introduction to something called ‘existentialism’. Yet in some way this wrong done to his intentions was already committed by Heidegger. Our purpose here is to explain what influence Kierkegaard had on Being and Time, and not purely his own project. Nonetheless it is important to mark what the limitations of this interpretation are.[1]

As with most writers that have influenced Being and Time directly there is little evidence in the text itself of Kierkegaard.[2] The reasons for this are probably twofold. First of all, like every original thinker, Heidegger wanted to present his work as a radical break with the previous tradition. Being and Time is not a work of scholarship on Kierkegaard, however much Heidegger himself was influenced by this reading of Kierkegaard.[3] Secondly, I think it was important for Heidegger to differentiate his philosophy from religion, precisely because, at least in terms of its vocabulary, there is much that is in common with a religious conviction. As we have already intimated, the primary purpose of Kierkegaard’s writing is religious. His aim is to place in front of the reader the real demand of becoming a Christian. Now on the way to that it might be the case that existential themes are announced, since for Kierkegaard one cannot truly be Christian without first of all becoming a self (indeed the two are necessarily entwined for him).[4] Whereas for Heidegger, the fundamental project is the existential analysis itself. Despite these two possible reasons for the virtual disappearance of Kierkegaard’s name in Heidegger’s text, it is clear that his work present throughout.[5]

What then did Kierkegaard discover that was so important to Heidegger’s existential analysis? Kierkegaard’s fundamental insight is that the self is not a category of thought. One does not think subjectivity into being, one has to become a subject. Existence is not a category of thought but a way of being. In terms of Kierkegaard’s context, he is writing against what he saw as the predominance of Hegelian philosophy at the time, where the human individual disappears in the system that he thinks.[6] What does it mean to be a self? We might think that this is the easiest thing of all to accomplish, since we are just born a self, but Kierkegaard wants to convince us that it is the hardest task of all, and some never achieve it. What is important is that simply thinking about it will not help. You cannot define the self into existence. You have to be it. In a footnote to Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard makes the famous distinction between learning about swimming and swimming. In the end to swim one has to swim. So too, to be a self, one has to exist as a self.[7]

In speaking of self objectively, I am describing the self from the outside. I might speak of myself or another person in terms of culture, morality and science, for example. But this way of speaking is not the same as being a self from within. Precisely by speaking of oneself from the outside, as though one were nothing but this objectified self, then the decision of being a self is left out. One just is one’s culture, society, or how science objectively describes me (a member of the human species for example). In this description, what make you or you a living self disappears. You vanish in the objective descriptions themselves. This does not mean that these objective descriptions are wrong. The scientific investigation of objective existence is right in itself, but it is wrong to confuse this with the subjectivity of lived existence. There are therefore two kinds of errors. One can make a mistake at the level of an objective description (one can think, for example that human beings did not evolve from a common ape ancestor), but there is more fundamental ontological error of confusing an objective description and subjective existence.

This means that nothing objective can help you make a subjective decision. Kierkegaard’s example is the decision to become a Christian. Nothing objective could make you become a Christian as a matter of faith. No-one becomes a Christian through the proofs of the existence of God, even if these arguments were true objectively. On the contrary faith is not a matter of reason for Kierkegaard but a subjective decision and it would be an ontological error to measure the latter by the former (as though faith were irrational in relation to the rationality of reason). An ‘objective acceptance of Christianity,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is paganism or thoughtlessness’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.108). What is ‘thoughtless’ here is not that one has made an objective mistake, but one has confused the subjective with the objective.

We think that what is objective is hard and what is subjective is easy. We think the objective is hard because it has to be learnt, whereas the subject is just given as a birth right. On the contrary, the opposite is the case. Anyone can learn if they want to, but to want to learn is harder than to learn (as any student knows). The first is objective and the second subjective. Not only is there a difference between the two, the objective is dependent on the subjective, and not the subjective on the objective. I learn because I want to learn. Without this first subjective decision, nothing objective would be learnt. Even if I live in a culture that treasures learning for itself, I still have to, as a subject, take this upon myself as task for myself. No-one can learn for me, I have to have this passion in order to learn. Rather than my subjectivity being given to me at birth, it is therefore something that I have to accomplish and it is an infinite task, for just when I think that I might have become myself I can lose myself again.

This difference between the subjective and the objective is the basis of the first problem of Fear and Trembling (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.54–67). Objectively, the subject matter of this book is the sacrifice of Isaac, his son, by Abraham, which is told in Genesis 22. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son. He takes him up to Mount Moriah, makes an altar, binds his son, and as he raises the knife a voice commands him to stop. Everyone knows this story from the outside, but Kierkegaard, through the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, wants us to experience the true horror of Abraham’s action from within.[8] Either he is a murderer or he is acting from faith, but if he is acting from faith then what he does makes no sense at all.

What is ethical, Kierkegaard explains, is universal and belongs to everyone and at every time. It is the ultimate telos and purpose of the ethical individual’s existence. This telos, however, is external and not internal, objective and not subjective. The individual breaks with this order by refusing to subject his will to the universal. This is what we mean by evil. An evil act is an action that breaks with the moral order as it is institutionalised in a given culture.[9] From this perspective, Abraham is a murder, and that he only stops his hand because he hears a voice would not make our judgement of him any better. But is this break with the ethical only an evil? Is there another way in which the ethical order is suspended? The paradox of faith is that the individual is higher than the universal not because the individual merely contradicts it but because the individual as individual is in relation to the absolute. The relation to the absolute is not the same as the relation to the universal, because in relation to the latter the individual is subsumed, whereas in relation to the absolute it is preserved. This cannot be understood from the outside, since from the exterior this relation can only be understand through the universal. Abraham could either be a murderer or a man of faith, but only he can know this. We can never be certain.[10]

Kierkegaard distinguishes the man of faith from the tragic hero. The tragic hero, however tragic he might be, finds recognition in the universal. The force of tragedy is the tension between the particular and the universal that finds resolution in the universal. Kierkegaard compares the Abraham’s sacrifice of his son with the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia (Kierkegaard 1983, p.57). On the surface these two stories might appear to be exactly the same. Abraham has to sacrifice his son; Agamemnon his daughter. Yet the results or outcomes of these stories are quite different. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for the sake of a higher purpose, the whim of the gods who will allow the winds to blow so that the Greeks can sail to Troy. It is terrible that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, but everyone knows that is this is the right and just thing to do. For Abraham, on the contrary, there is no result or outcome. His act is not justified by the universal, and no-one thinks that his act is legitimate. On the contrary, Kierkegaard asserts, the opposite is the case, there is no justification. Either Abraham is a murderer because he breaks the moral code, or he is man of faith, but the difference between the two is not rational. The true analogy between them would have been if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter even though the winds had already started to pick up and there was no reason at all to carry through the terrible act.

What is the difference between the tragic  hero and Abraham? The tragic hero is still within the ethical, still within the universal. He has a higher purpose, goal or telos that in the end justifies the action however much the individual suffers, both the doer of the deed and the victim. This is the meaning of the spiritual trial or tragedy of the tragic hero. For Abraham, on the contrary there is no spiritual trial, even if he might think there is or we might do so, since he suspends the teleology of the ethical for something higher still.[11] He has a relation to something else that is not the universal, which is the absolute.[12] This relation, however, can only be subjective and not objective. It can only be recognised inwardly and not outwardly. He goes ahead with the act because as living proof of his faith in God, which is an individual subjective relation and not an objective universal one.

Abraham’s temptation, therefore is not to break the law, but to act out of duty. Not to trust in God, but to trust in the law. His temptation is not to kill his son, but the opposite, not to kill him. This struggle, unlike the tragic story, cannot be described, because what matters is internal not external. You can describe it from the outside as Kierkegaard does, but that is not the same as undergoing this trial. Because from the outside we do not whether Abraham is a murder or a man of faith. This is why from the outside his action can only appear as absurd and meaningless.

Because I cannot know whether my faith is justified or not from the outside, then I can only experience it in terms of doubt, distress and anxiety. If I could point to something outside of myself, some proof, reason definition, then I could find a stable resting place. But it is precisely these that are lacking. What has happened to contemporary Christianity, for Kierkegaard, is that it finds its certainty in the external so that it can avoid the anxiety of the internal. At least at the time when he was writing, everyone could confirm their faith by simply being a citizen but one did not have to take a stand individually in the way that Abraham had to proof his faith in the sacrifice of his son.

‘Anxiety,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is the dizziness of freedom’, but what is meant by ‘freedom in this remark (1980a, p.61)? It is not the freedom to want something, which Kierkegaard calls finite freedom, but infinite freedom. How do we distinguish infinite and finite freedom? One way to distinguish it is the object of freedom. The object of finite freedom is things, but the object of infinite freedom is literally nothing. It is precisely because infinite freedom has its object nothing that it is experienced as anxiety. What is this nothing about which I am anxious? It is my existence as such. Not this or that part of my existence, or even something in my existence, but my very existing itself. Faith, for Kierkegaard, is an expression of such an existence.

Here we come to the crux of Kierkegaard’s thought, existence. How are we to approach existence? If we were to describe it externally, then we would do so through categories, but is so doing we would lose its very character and what is revealed in anxiety would vanish in our labels, definitions and certainty. We want to understand existence in terms of its own being, from within and not from without. To do so, Kierkegaard argues, we have to experience it as a possibility rather than as an actuality. When we think of existence from the outside, we imagine it as an actuality. I think of myself, for example, in terms of the role I occupy. I am a student or a lecturer. But what defines these roles form the outside is that they are eminently substitutable. Anyone can be a student or a lecture, not just me. What I want to capture is the fact that is I who am a student or a lecturer. The only reason that I could be so is that these actualities were a possibility that I could choose or choose not to be. In terms of existence, therefore, possibility precedes actuality, whereas in terms of essence (objective and universal thought), it is the other way around, actuality precedes possibility. The anxiety that Kierkegaard describes as fundamental to becoming a self has to do with this possibility. For a possibility is not yet something, so to experience the possibility of possibility is to feel the anxiety of nothingness. What is it that I shall be? How to I become myself? What is my task?

There is another way of thinking possibility. It is not to be understood as lack, chance of good fortune, as when someone says on some happy day, ‘anything might be possible’. For the possibilities they are imagining, buying a new car, getting a better job, winning the lottery, are all actualities of this world, banal and common place. Rather what Kierkegaard means by the infinite is that ‘all things are equally possible’. In other words, everything is suspended in the possible before it is actualised. Not this or that possibility in my life, but my whole life has become a possibility and one that can be torn away and annihilated. In comparison, reality is easy to bear, because you have never risked your life for it. You become a part of your reality by acquiescing to it. You only become yourself, however, by rejecting it. Yet to reject reality is not replace one part of it for another. You never learn anything from existence by merely standing a little apart from it. Only when it, as pure possibility, has robbed you of all certainty do you learn anything at all. Existence only teaches me when I am stripped off my reality and not when I am absorbed in it. To experience the possible at the heart of the actual, and not the actual at the heart of the possible and to accept the impossible as the movement of existence is a matter of faith. For knowledge and reason will have already defined in advance what the possible is by the actual, rather than the actual by the possible.

No doubt for the most part, we do not live like this for who wants to face the anxiety of the possible every day? Also, Kierkegaard is certain that we live in age where what is ultimately possible is levelled down to the lowest level. We understand ourselves as others understand themselves, we think as others think, like what they like and even end up having the same opinions. We are hardly even living as individuals even though ironically we live in the age of the individual. Everything is fed to is so we do not have to face ourselves. Our lives are one distraction following another where what dominates are ‘the public’ and endless ‘chatter’(Kierkegaard 1978, pp.91–110).

There is, however, one eventuality that cuts through this banality and that is our deaths. Of course we all know that we are going to die eventually, but this death is an actuality, a fact, a death that we read about everyday online. What it isn’t is the possibility of our own deaths. The possibility of my death is not something that happens at the end of my life and which I can postpone as much as I wish. The possibility of my death is permanent and imminent. Moreover my death is something that I have to face myself. Someone else I cannot die my death. I have to do so alone. This possibility of my death shows me that my existence is fragile and temporary. All the actualities on which I have constructed my existence can be swept away by this possibility which is the impossibility of all my possibilities. If I were really to face this permanent possibility of my death would I not choose my life as an individual, rather than have someone else choose it for me?

Suppose death were so devious as to come tomorrow! Just this uncertainty, when it is to be understood and held fast by an existing individual, and hence enter into every thought, precisely because as uncertainty, it enters into everything […], so that I make it clear to myself whether, if death comes tomorrow, I am beginning upon something that is worth starting on. (Kierkegaard 2009, p.139)

If I were to die tomorrow, would I really be what I am now? It is not that this or that action or role is authentically individual or not (as though one were more authentic if one were a poet rather than a street cleaner, or Kierkegaard’s tax collector, for this again would be to confuse the inner with the outer), but whether one is authentically individual at all. Whether one really has chosen one’s life at all, and the risk, distress and anxiety this causes. Or whether one has accepted the safe and secure position, but which, from one’s death bed, one regrets as a life wasted. As Kierkegaard continues,

For me, my dying is not at all something general; maybe for the others my dying is a something in general. Neither, for myself, am I such a something in general; maybe for the others I’m a something in general. But if the task is to become subjective, then every subject will for himself become the very opposite of a something in general. (2009, p.140)

Risking one’s life, facing one’s death, being oneself, subjectivity as a task and an accomplishment, the priority of existence over essence, the internal over the external, the possible over the actual, are all themes that we shall find at the heart of Being and Time. What we will not find is any talk of God. We shall need to ask whether this absence troubles us or not. For the great difference between Kierkegaard and Heidegger is not, as Heidegger believed, that Kierkegaard lacked a sufficient ontological analysis of existence, but that for Kierkegaard to truly be a self you have to be in a relationship with God. For Heidegger, it is sufficient to be in relation to one’s own death. This is perhaps the difference between an ontological ethics and an ethical ontology.

Works Cited

Carlisle, C., 2010. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: a Reader’s Guide, London; New York: Continuum.

Hannay, A., 2010. Why Kierkegaard in Particular? Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook, pp.33–48.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kierkegaard, S., 2009. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1983. Fear and Trembling   Repetition, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1980a. The Concept of Anxiety : a Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1980b. The Sickness unto Death : a Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1978. Two Ages : the Age of Revolution and the Present Age : a Literary Review, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

McCarthy, V., 2011. Martin Heidegger: Kierkegaard’s Influence Hidden and in Full View. In J. Stewart, ed. Kierkegaard and Existentialism. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., pp. 95–125.

Stewart, J., 2007. Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] I agree with Hannay that there is no philosophy in Kierkegaard’s writings as such however they might be appropriated by philosophers as such. ‘I myself have ceased to look for such a philosophy in Kierkegaard. Whatever his private thoughts , and however much we like to ‘depth’ read the texts as an escape from nihilism, or to skim from them an early course in existentialism, that is not what Kierkegaard’s writings say on their face or even under the skin, not to me at least.’ (2010, p.46)

[2] There are only three footnotes to Kierkegaard in Being and Time. For a thorough analysis of the presence of Kierkegaard in Being and Time see Vincent McCarthy ‘Martin Heidegger: Kierkegaard’s Influence Hidden and in Full View’ (2011).

[3] This should not prevent others from finding Kierkegaard there for themselves.

[4] As Kierkegaard writes in Sickness unto Death, ‘Despair is intensified in relation to the consciousness of the self, but the self is intensified in relation to the criterion for the self, infinitely when God is the criterion. In fact the greater the conception of God, the more self there is; the more self, the greater the conception of God’ (1980b, p.80).

[5] We should be particular suspect of Heidegger’s insistence, in one footnote, that Kierkegaard was only capable of existentiell rather than existential analysis and thus any ontological understanding lacking in his work (Heidegger 1962, p.494n). If this were the case it would be difficult to explain how even his existential concepts have a remarkable kierkegaardian flavour. This is clear when one compares the pages on subjective anxiety in The Concept of Anxiety  and the description of the same phenomenon in Being and Time (Kierkegaard 1980a, pp.60–80).

[6] ‘From an abstract point of view, system and existing cannot be thought together, because systematic thought in order to think life must think of it annulled and hence not as life. Existence is the spacing that holds things apart; the systematic is the finality that joins them together’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.100). Kierkegaard’s comments against Hegel are more aimed against Danish Hegelians and a philosophical fashion than Hegel himself. For a detailed account of Kierkegaard’s relation to Hegel see Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Stewart 2007).

[7] ‘In learning to go through the motions of swimming, one can be suspended from the ceiling in a harness and then presumably describe the movements, but one is not swimming’ (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.37–8).

[8] Clare Carlisle, in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, explores the significance of this pseudonym (2010, pp.24–8).

[9] There are three spheres of existence for Kierkegaard: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The ethical expresses the universal (which he understands in an Hegelian sense; the aesthetic the capricious will of the individual; the religious, the relation of the will to the absolute. The important distinction is between the aesthetic and the individual. In other words, do not confuse subjective relativism with a genuine commitment to the self.

[10] This is why Kierkegaard says that from the outside one could never differentiate the knight of faith from the knight of infinite resignation. He tells the story of the knight of faith as an ordinary person who goes about his day without anyone knowing. ‘He belongs to the world; no bourgeois philistine could belong to it more’ (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.38–41).

[11] It is very important not to confuse the teleological suspension of the ethical for the sake of the absolute with subjective relativism. The latter is not a mark of commitment or courage, but precisely the opposite. Relativism is an expression of following the crowd and not a mark of authentic individualism, which is always a relation to something higher than oneself.

[12] It significant that the relation to God is to the absolute and not to the universal. In the latter God is part of reason; in the former He transcends it.

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