Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55)

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

6. Psychological themes and influence

Kierkegaard’s preoccupation with the category of subjectivity that ran like a continuous thread through his theoretical writings was integrally linked to his conception of human beings as individual and self-determining participants in the ‘existential process’. The view that freedom and the possibility of change constituted fundamental conditions of human life and fulfilment was delineated in his so-called ‘psychological works’, The Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness Unto Death. In both books the structure of human personality is portrayed in developmental and volitional terms; individuals exist in the mode, not of being, but of becoming, and what they become is something for which they themselves are ultimately responsible. In this connection certain pervasive attitudes and emotions can be seen to possess a special significance, Kierkegaard giving priority of place to a form of anxiety or dread (Angst) which differed from sentiments like fear in lacking any determinate object and in being directed instead to ‘something that is nothing’. Such a state of mind might manifest itself in a variety of ways, but he made it clear that his fundamental concern was with its relation to the consciousness of freedom. Thus he referred to the particular kind of dizziness, or vertiginous ambivalence between attraction and repulsion, that was liable to afflict us when, in certain circumstances, the realization dawned that there was nothing objective that compelled us to opt for one course of action rather than another; in the last analysis what we did was up to ourselves alone, freedom being said to ‘look down into its own possibility’ as though into a yawning abyss or void. Kierkegaard believed that the psychological phenomenon so identified had momentous consequences, not least for its bearing on the religious alternatives of sin and salvation. On the one hand, the story of Adam represented a mythical illustration of how the awakened consciousness of freedom could arouse an anxiety whose occurrence in this case was the precursor of sin. On the other hand, however, such an emotion might also arise when there was a possibility of making a qualitative leap, not into sin and alienation from God, but towards the opposite of this, namely, faith and the promise offered by Christianity. But here Kierkegaard reiterates the point that a presentiment of the difficulties and sacrifices entailed made the latter a course which there were strong temptations to resist; it followed that people were only too prone to conceal from themselves their potentialities as free beings, such self-induced obscurity serving as a convenient screen for inaction and a failure to change. Self-deception of this sort in fact formed a component of many of the varieties of spiritual despair which Kierkegaard picked out for analysis, as well as underpinning his diagnosis of some of the broader types of malaise he detected in the social and cultural climate of his time.

In his insistence upon the ultimacy of human freedom and his correlative attention to the devices and strategies whereby people may seek to protect themselves from a recognition of some of its disturbing implications, Kierkegaard anticipated themes that were taken up, albeit much later and often in an explicitly secular setting, by a number of leading twentieth-century writers (see Existentialism). Subjectivity and the primacy of the individual, the ‘burden’ of freedom, the contrast between authentic and inauthentic modes of existence – these and associated topics became familiar through the works of existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger as well as figuring in the wider field of imaginative literature. Nor were those the only areas in which his ideas eventually made an impact. In the sphere of ethics his emphasis on radical choice indirectly contributed to the growth of non-cognitivist theories of value, while in religion his conception of faith had a profound influence on the development of modern Protestant theology, notwithstanding understandable reservations about some of his more extreme claims regarding its paradoxical character.

Citing this article:
Gardiner, Patrick. Psychological themes and influence. 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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