THE CONCEPT OF DESPAIR AND ITS RELATION WITH THE SELF IN KIERKEGAARD’S THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH
An Undergraduate Thesis
Presented to the
Faculty of Arts and Letters
University of Santo Tomas
In Partial Fulfilment of the
Requirements for the Degree
Bachelor of Arts Major in Philosophy
Talania, Samantha S.
It is widely present in the works and writings of Søren Kierkegaard that he insists the need for an anthropology which would help illustrate and describe the essential characteristics of human existence; from this, several commentators and critics would argue that it is the concept of the self that which binds the productive and multi-faceted works of Kierkegaard. Mark C. Taylor (1975), for example, was able to detect a “singular intention of the authorship” in that which probes the readers into understanding what it means to actualize “genuine self-hood in his personal existence.” Other optimistic commentators like Stephen Evans (1982) and Louis Pojman (1984) would agree to such claim, and would argue that this reason proves Kierkegaard’s complex authorship to be deserving of attention in the field of philosophy. From this, what can be found and are utterly central in Kierkegaard’s works are his rich accounts on what constitutes to or the topography of human existence. Further, he was also able to provide analysis of the various states in accordance with such understanding; he produced an existential approach that proved to be beneficial when trying to understand human crises. This, I believe, is where the importance lies in analyzing Kierkegaard’s understanding of the self: because it accounts for the foundation that fathoms human existence. Thus, Kierkegaard was able to “expand the domain of awareness of ourselves,” and helped us maintain the “clarity about the roots of our inner being” (Kurtz, 1961). Perhaps, it is also in this very subject where Kierkegaard was able to find the answer which he sought from the task to find the idea for which he can “live and die” for.
As follows, the goal of this thesis is to examine into Kierkegaard’s concept of despair through a careful textual analysis of The Sickness unto Death. However, in order to do this, it will prove necessary to discuss Kierkegaard’s concept of the self; this notion will first need clarification if we are to attempt to understand what Kierkegaard means by despair. Once examined, both the nature and function of despair as an ‘existential determinant’ located in Kierkegaard’s concept of the self will be determined and articulated. The guiding text for this thesis’ investigation will be Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death, because it is in this work in which he outlined and explicated the concept of despair in relation to his concept of the self.
From this, I will be dividing this thesis into three parts; the first guiding subject to be examined would be the concept of the self. To do this, we must go back to the root question: what is the self? The Sickness unto Death opens with a definition:
A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself, or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself (p. 13).
According to Kierkegaard, the self or spirit is a relation that which relates itself to its own self, and that in doing so, it relates itself ultimately to God. The self for Kierkegaard, then, is essentially self-relating. Further, it is in this cycle of relations is where despair (Fortvivelse) arises.
The second part of this thesis will focus on the concept of despair. In his work, The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard describes despair as a mood that is experienced in a subject-centered state; his definition of despair is not confined simply as a psychological state, instead Kierkegaard was able to postulate as to be a fundamental sickness that which causes ‘misrelation’ to the self that which is essentially self-relating. This will be followed by examining Kierkegaard’s detailed hierarchy concerning despair’s multitude of forms in order of intensity. Kierkegaard insists that it is necessary for the human existence to experience all these forms of despair. That all men should be in the grip of despair sounds an absurd situation to be in, yet at the same time, in a sense, it is far from being a state of consciousness that should be avoided; despair, is in fact, the very state that that allows the human existence to be “oneself, as…this definite individual” (SUD, 341).
After providing coherent analysis on Kierkegaard’s concepts of despair and the self, in the last part I will examine despair as an existential determinant of the self; I will be delving into explaining why, when and where does despair appear in the human existence. This will help me clarify the dynamics and what constitutes to the self that makes despair possible, thus being able to finally locate both the nature and function of despair in Kierkegaard’s concept of the self.
With regards to Kierkegaard’s definition of the Self and the relation it has with despair, Michael Theunissen (2005) wrote a commentary for Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death. In Theunissen’s commentary, he remarks that the central tenets of Kierkegaard’s concept of despair is a consequence that resulted from a fundamental principle; this principle is that “we do not will to be directly who we are” (p. 5). As follows, Theunissen claims that Kierkegaard’s concept of despair is crucially dependent upon this principle.
Furthermore, the amount of recognition that has come to Kierkegaard’s enigmatic and complex but progressive scheme of authorship, especially with his The Sickness unto Death, although has been considered to be the most consistent work in his authorship, unfortunately has not been thoroughly extensive. But it is precisely this reason why it is important to undertake this work of Kierkegaard, so that any opportunity of deepening an insight would remain explored. Another is that of Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms; this kind of writing scheme garnered and ensued accusations towards his authorship in being ‘exhaustive’ to be read among scholars. Thus, Kierkegaard’s works could not be easily captured nor be made fit into any system scheme; however, as I believe, in this style comes the uniqueness that a scholar may find upon the consumption of his works; the works of Kierkegaard bears the resistance to be confined into a system, which is why his authorship scheme fails to be in categorization. Further, it may be true that Kierkegaard’s given ideas in his whole authorship do not possess any necessary relation to one another or any inter-relatedness, or that which primarily gives birth to a claim that an underlying system could be present, this however does not suggest that in this massive corpus these ideas are each placed not in their own appropriate place in Kierkegaard’s philosophy.
As such, since his work The Sickness unto Death has been published through one of his pseudonyms, an examination of the said work demands some account on how to approach the problem that surrounds pseudonym authorship. Finally, one might ask: how are we to understand the relation of Kierkegaard to his pseudonym works? According to Josiah Thompson (1967), one may approach the relation between Kierkegaard and his pseudonym works through viewing the life of Kierkegaard. But he presents another basic issue concerning this: should Kierkegaard’s works be understood in an autobiographical context, or would it be better to take his works on their own without trying to examine their relationship with Kierkegaard?
Furthermore, Thompson points out that at the center of Kierkegaard’s existence, there exists a void or emptiness; it seems that in this void, Kierkegaard is trying to escape. This void is referred to as ‘labyrinth’ by Thompson, it is a place of tormented religious doubt. It is through the pseudonym works which Kierkegaard struggled to work his way out of this labyrinth (p. 47). This could mean that Kierkegaard’s self is lost, a theme that which is also prevalent in his works. Thus, Thompson argues that it is the pseudonym authorship which provided Kierkegaard the drive to do a personal search, and the answer he found for this search was Christianity (p. 70). This is why Thompson thinks that in finally escaping the labyrinth, Kierkegaard was able to discover that such experience of a state results to “mature religious experience” (p. 213). The central theme portrayed in the works of Kierkegaard as interpreted by Thompson is the theme of what it means to be the self and that it is necessary to pursue this; from this pursuit, what would ultimately result is the culmination of the self in a Christian framework.
Traditionally, however, the works of Kierkegaard has been interpreted as to reject arguments associated with the quest to find the truth of the Christian doctrine. But more recently, scholars of Kierkegaard’s works are suggesting that Kierkegaard does indeed present religious arguments as well. One of these scholars is Stephen Evans (1982), who referred to these religious argument as “non-theoretical justifications for religious belief” (p. 4). Although Evans states this, despite having a theme assumed to be unifying throughout the authorship scheme of Kierkegaard, his suspicion remains that one may not be able to wholly discern the philosophical project of Kierkegaard. After all, Kierkegaard did acknowledge the authorship of all his pseudonym work, but at the same time he eluded them from his own: “there is not a single word by me,” he stated in reference to his pseudonym works. Nonetheless, as Evans argued, this do not necessarily posit that Kierkegaard may not have shared some of the views and beliefs of the pseudonyms.