Lecture Notes, Philosophy 151

Kierkegaard and Angst

November 9, 1995

Thus far, we have examined the way in which Kierkegaard upheld the primacy of the individual in the face of the system, which culminates in the passionate embrace of a paradoxical God. In other works, Kierkegaard emphasized the psychological conditions leading up to the leap of faith. Perhaps his most famous analysis was of the state of angst (dread or anxiety). Certainly it was influential on a number of "existential" philosophers in the twentieth century, most notably Jean Paul Sartre.

Although his analysis was psychological, Kierkegaard framed it in the context of a theological question about the possibility of original sin. How could Adam have become guilty when he did not know the meaning of good or evil? How could Adam's sin afflict the entire human race? Ultimately there is no rational explanation, but a psychological investigation of angst can lead us up to the point where the leap into guilt is made.

Kierkegaard's approach can be described as "phenomenological" (cf. Hegel's use of the term). He described how the condition makes its appearance. Perhaps the best example is in the behavior of children who are simultaneously drawn toward and repelled by what is strange or mysterious to them. The attitude is a "sympathetic antipathy" or "antipathetic sympathy." A wealth of possibility is opened up, so much so that one has no idea what the future will bring. In this way, angst is distinguished from fear, which is merely an antipathy and moreover directed toward something specific. Putting the matter paradoxically, Kierkegaard declared that angst has nothing as its object.

It is the indeterminateness of the object of angst which is supposed to bring us closer to an understanding of a loss of innocence. Although Adam did not know the meaning of good and evil, or of the significance of the penalty of death threatened by God, he was attracted to the condemned object by virtue of the possibility wrapped up in it. He finally committed the offense, which was a leap into guilt. Like the leap of faith, this leap cannot be comprehended rationally or psychologically, but is the subject of religious "dogmatics."

Kierkegaard went on to argue that angst is a condition for the salvation of every subsequent individual. Salvation takes place only through faith, and faith is attained through the renunciation of the finite. It is angst which opens up to us infinite possibility. It would seem that the progression from angst through faith would lead to an "other-worldly" orientation, a loss of the finite world. But here, astonishingly, Kierkegaard pronounced that "through faith, one gets everything back." Here there is more than a faint echo of his longing to regain the woman he once renounced.

The theme of regaining the finite through its very renunciation is prominent in one of Kierkegaard's most famous pieces, Fear and Trembling. There is a story of a knight who is beneath the station of a princess whom he can never approach. His response is infinite resignation. The knight of faith, on the other hand, concentrates his power of love for the princess on God. Through faith, he is able to believe the absurd proposition that he can be united with the princess. "By faith I make renunciation of nothing; on the contrary, by faith I acquire everything, precisely in the sense in which it is said that he who has faith like a grain of mustard can move mountains." Like the God-human, the knight of faith is otherwise an ordinary person, indistinguishable from anyone else.

One of the major themes in Kierkegaard's writing was the the validity of ethical norms, particularly as reflected in the institution of marriage. We have already seen that the ethical constitutes a break or leap from another way of living, one of innocence. Ethical values attain significance for an individual only through a choice to embrace them. (In the case of Adam, this is embodied in his eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.)

In his early book Either/Or, Kierkegaard contrasted the ethical life with the amoral "aesthetic" life. Here we find his famous description of the "rotation method," which uses sheer arbitrariness for the alleviation of boredom, the fatal enemy of the aesthetic. Here as well is the "diary of the Seducer," in which the end of enjoyment is taken to horrible extremes. The seducer wins the heart of a young woman, inducing here to pursue him. When his seduction succeeds, he abandons her at once, having reached the highest point of pleasure. All that would have remained would be the tedium of marriage. In the second part of the book, Kierkegaard's character Judge Willhelm spins out lengthy sermons about the virtues of the mundane ethical life of faithful wedlock.

But the ethical life is superseded by the calling of religion (or at least so Kierkegaard tried to convince himself in the process of giving up Regina). Ethical laws are universal, subject to no exception. Yet faith could call upon the individual to violate them if it were the will of God. Such is the story of Abraham, who was willing to act against a most basic human moral norm, the protection of one's own offspring, because God asked him to kill his son. This "teleological suspension of the ethical" once again is incomprehensible, but such is the nature of faith.

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