Opinion | Daunting and inconsistent, yet rewarding nevertheless

One of the most significant figures in the history of Danish thought is the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Such is the importance of Kierkegaard that his influence has spread well beyond the borders of Denmark. French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Japanese philosophers Kitaro Nishida and Keiji Nishitani, and American psychologists Carl Rogers and Rollo May, to name but a few, were all much influenced by the ideas of Kierkegaard. The upcoming bicentenary celebrations of Kierkegaard’s birth on May 5 are therefore the marking of a noteworthy event in Danish.

Oddly enough, however, Kierkegaard is little understood outside the circle of academics and philosophers studying him. Indeed, even within these circles there is much disagreement over what his views are. One of the reasons for this is the purposively obscure way in which Kierkegaard presented his ideas. Not only did he frequently write under pseudonyms (for reasons that remain unclear), but he was also a chronic ironist, unsystematic, and even careless in formulating his arguments. All of this combines to make it a daunting task reading Kierkegaard.

However, for the person who persists with this undertaking, Kierkegaard has much to offer. For Kierkegaard was a keen observer of human behaviour, providing some fascinating insights into those obscure corners of the mind. Foremost among his interests are freedom, subjectivity, anxiety, despair and self-deception – experiences that all of us have but find hard to grasp. Anxiety, for example, is often thought to be simply a fear of or worry over something. Kierkegaard, however, points out that it is more complicated than that, contending that anxiety is a fear of something that you are afraid of but nevertheless secretly want to do.

Imagine, for example, you want to cross a busy road where there are no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. As you contemplate this undertaking, watching the lorries and cars whizz by, you begin to feel anxiety; the chances of getting across without being hit do not look good. But why should you feel anxiety? If it is so dangerous, then obviously you should not cross, and so there is no need to feel anxiety. The reason for this anxiety, Kierkegaard would argue, is that, even though you fear crossing the road, you secretly want to take the chance to race across the road just to see if you can make it. And this is an experience that appears in many situations: we find an action horrible, disgusting or embarrassing, and so assure ourselves that we would never do it. But at a deeper level we secretly desire to do it.

But why should we act in this way? Why should we be attracted to something we fear or dislike? Kierkegaard’s answer is that in doing so we are asserting our freedom. Thus, even though something is dangerous, repulsive or goes completely against my values, I nevertheless want to prove to myself that I am free to choose one way or the other. I therefore toy with the idea of choosing the unwanted option just to assure myself of my freedom. Anxiety then appears as I begin to fear that I might actually make the terrible choice.

The anxiety that such a situation arouses helps then to explain the peculiar activity of self-deception. This is because anxiety is an unpleasant experience. Therefore, we naturally do what we can to avoid it. One thing that can be done here is deceiving myself into believing that I am not free to perform an undesired act, and that I could ‘never do such a thing’ (even though at a deeper level I know I can and am free to do so). This is but one instance of what Kierkegaard calls double-mindedness – the willing of two inconsistent things – and is something that spreads itself over a wide range of human activities.

Although much of this seems to paint a dark picture of human existence, it is important to remember that just as our own freedom is responsible for these problems, it is also the answer to these problems. For just as I am free to choose an undesirable option, I am also free to choose the desirable one instead.

However, a major problem here has to do with Kierkegaard’s own inconsistency. This is because although Kierkegaard was a philosopher who was interested in the sort of humanistic problems I have been mentioning, he also was interested in Christianity and thus attempted to force his insights into a Christian mould. He tried to pour new wine into old bottles. Unfortunately, the old bottles could not accommodate the new wine and he was left contradicting himself. Thus, for example, it is clear that, for Kierkegaard, anxiety is something that will attend all choices.

Nevertheless, he wants to have a Christian solution to this constant anxiety and so ends up saying that the atonement (the death of Jesus) somehow liberates us from anxiety. But this contradicts his whole account of human freedom: choice necessarily involves the possibility of choosing the terrible, thus creating anxiety. The only way the atonement could remove our anxiety is if it took away our freedom of choice. But, for Kierkegaard, this is clearly something it has not done (despite the death of Jesus, we continue to be free).

One gets the feeling, however, that Kierkegaard was not so interested in providing us with solutions to the problems he describes, as he was with getting us to find our own solutions. In this way, his lack of clarity and inconsistencies can also be seen as an enticement to search for our own answers.

The author is a lecturer in philosophy and the editor of ‘Kierkegaard and Japanese Thought’