Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 03, 2022, from

3. Aestheticism and the ethical

Kierkegaard maintained that in his early writings he had aimed to arouse and enlarge the self-understanding of his readers by eschewing abstract instruction and by employing in its place an avowedly therapeutic method he referred to as ‘indirect communication’. This meant delineating particular ways of life in a fashion that enabled people to grasp concretely and from within the distinct types of outlook and motivation involved, such a procedure being a characteristically literary or ‘poetic’ one. Not only were alternative positions imaginatively presented as if in a novel or play; the books in which this was done were attributed to different personages in the shape of pseudonymous authors or editors. He intended thereby to avoid the kind of ex cathedra didacticism he associated with standard philosophical texts of his time. Instead he favoured an undogmatic approach in which competing views and attitudes were ‘allowed to speak for themselves’, it being left to his readers to decide where they stood in relation to these and to make up their own minds about the practical conclusions to be drawn.

Either/Or was the first of Kierkegaard’s works to be published under a pseudonym and was a book he later alluded to as clearly exemplifying his use of the above method. It purports to portray two radically dissimilar modes of existence, one characterized as ‘aesthetic’ and the other as ‘ethical’. Both are presented through the medium of allegedly edited papers or letters, the first set being ascribed to an individual referred to as ‘A’ and the second to an older man who is said to be by profession a judge. Aestheticism as exhibited in A’s loosely related assortment of papers is seen to take on a lively variety of forms and guises; among other things, it is held to find expression in the characters of legendary figures like Don Juan and Faust, and it is also illustrated by an account in diary form of a step-by-step seduction. By contrast, the position of the ethicist is set out in two somewhat prosaic letters which are addressed by the Judge to A and which include detailed critical analyses of the younger man’s motives and psychological prospects.

What did Kierkegaard understand by the categories he distinguished? From the text the aesthetic life emerges as one in which the individual is essentially concerned with exploring means to his own satisfaction and where there is a consequent absence of overall continuity in the course he follows. As has been indicated, however, the picture drawn is complex and multi-faceted. While in general outline it is suggestive of a person in pursuit of transient pleasures rather than following any long-term aim, there are passages where attention is chiefly focused on the aesthetic individual’s dependence upon unpredictable vicissitudes of mood or circumstance, and others again where emphasis is laid on his need to guard against the threats posed by ennui or melancholy. Not unexpectedly, it is the problematic possibilities inherent in A’s lifestyle that the Judge singles out for criticism in his comprehensive survey of the aesthetic position. Whereas the aestheticist typically allows himself to be swayed by what he conceives to be the unalterable constituents of his natural disposition, the ethically orientated individual is prone to look at himself in an altogether different light. Both his motivation and behaviour are responsive to a self-image ‘in likeness to which he has to form himself’, his particular aptitudes and propensities being seen as subject to the control of his will and as capable of being directed to the realization of demanding projects that reflect what he truly aspires to become. It is commitment to such projects which endows the ethical life with a coherence and self-sufficiency that its aesthetic counterpart conspicuously lacks (see Existentialist ethics).

Kierkegaard’s treatment in Either/Or of the aesthetic/ethical contrast is frequently thought to echo the Kantian distinction between inclination and duty (see Kantian ethics). But although there may be discernible affinities, there are also significant differences. Thus Kant’s predominantly schematic accounts of sensuous motivation are devoid of both the psychological penetration and the literary sophistication that characterize Kierkegaard’s wide-ranging portrayals of the aesthetic stance. And comparable divergences are apparent in the case of the ethical. Kierkegaard’s judge may be said to follow the German philosopher in highlighting the role of the will, underlining its independence of contingent circumstances and stressing its capacity to manage the sphere of natural inclination in a way that is conformable to the ethical individual’s paramount concerns. Yet while he shares Kant’s belief in and respect for the latter’s autonomy, he differs in not presenting moral requirements in terms of the purely formal prescriptions of practical reason. The self which it is the task of each individual to choose and develop is not an ‘abstract’ but a ‘concrete’ self; it stands in ‘reciprocal relations’ with its actual social and cultural surroundings, things like marriage, having a job and undertaking civic and institutional responsibilities being intrinsic to personal fulfilment in the requisite sense. It is implied, moreover, that such active participation in communal affairs, involving an unconstrained and inward adherence to standards presupposed by a shared form of life, reinforces the contrast already drawn with the unreflective or wayward ‘experimentalism’ typified by certain manifestations of the aesthetic outlook. Thus the Judge insists upon the conceptual exclusion from the ethical of whatever savours of the arbitrary or the merely capricious. At the same time, however, he indicates that this should not be thought of as circumscribing in any fundamental fashion the subjective freedom and independence of the individual. For although moral requirements must of necessity be treated as authoritative, they are not apprehended as deriving from a source ‘foreign to the personality’ but are instead experienced as springing or ‘breaking forth’ from the latter’s essential nature.

Even so, it is arguable that the internal tensions between individualistic and socially conformist strains discernible in the Judge’s representation of the ethical sphere cannot always be easily or satisfactorily resolved. Kierkegaard discussed one context in which they might be said to arise in a critical form when he went on to consider a way of life that constituted an alternative to the possibilities so far portrayed. This stage of existence, transcending the other two, was the religious.

Citing this article:
Gardiner, Patrick. Aestheticism and the ethical. Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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