PREVIEW-Episode 29: Kierkegaard on the Self

Discussing Soren Kierkegaard's "The Sickness Unto Death" (1849).

This is a 32-minute preview of our vintage 1 hr, 56-minute episode which you can buy at or get for free with PEL Citizenship (see, and after you're signed in to the Citizen site, go to the Free Stuff page). You can also purchase the full episode in the iTunes Store: Search for "Partially Kierkegaard" and look under "Albums."

What is the self? For K. we are a tension between opposites: necessity and possibility, the finite and the infinite, soul and body. He thinks we're all in despair, whether we know it or not, because we wrongly think we're something we're not, or we reject what we are, or we just don't pay attention to this dynamic at all: we just go along with the crowd. So we need to keep self-examining and (he thinks) ultimately embrace our subservience to God.

Joined by guest podcaster/Kiekegaard's lawyer Daniel Horne, we consider K.'s 3-step self-help program and whether there's anything to be gotten here if you don't subscribe to K's Christianity.

Read the text free online or buy the book.We also devote some discussion to Fear and Trembling.

End song: "John T. Flibber," from Happy Songs Will Bring You Down by the MayTricks (1994). Get the whole album free.


  1. says

    Thanks for slogging through these difficult works for the benefit of existentialists like me out there.

    It was very interesting to hear the perspective of approaching Kierkegaard anew, as opposed to his more regular readers who would generally approach his work in some sort of state of religious crisis.

    I’ll be checking out the Youtube links.

  2. says

    I’m actually a fan his Christian stuff too. He can be an extremely difficult read, though. One of the his own quotes about his works are that they are like cinnamon. They are a corrective, but you would struggle to live off a diet of his work alone. It’s refreshing to come across a writer who is willing to admit to that level of honesty. Ironic that he had to do it under a pseudonym though.

    Still all in all, Kierkegaard has had a huge influence on me.

    Good job on being a newbie on the show, by the way. I enjoyed the way you stood you ground.

  3. Mackenzie says

    Hi there,

    I am an undergraduate student at the University of Lethbridge (Canada) who is doing my honours thesis on Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death in a paper entitled: Philosophy as Therapy. I heard you mention in your podcast that you have a powerpoint of this book . I’d be interested in obtaining a copy of that powerpoint to see your interpretation layed out in a visual manner. Could you post it to the website?

  4. Ace says


    For 2 hours on Kierkegaard, I am kind of disappointed that I didn’t learn anything. I have read nothing of his works except a few sample extracts in philosophy books, and a little mass-market book that is a collection of his parables.
    I enjoy the podcast, but this episode seemed to repeat the same few vague points over and over, without bothering to really get into any depth about his ideas. Mainly, I learned bullet points I already knew, that Kierkegaard was a Lutheran, anti-Hagel, and wanted people to find their authentic “selfs.” In fact, a lot of his ideas were barely touched upon, such as his being a firm subjectivist. Most of the discussion seemed to center around how you can secularize Kierkegaard into self-help therapy (why?), and how we can understand him despite his Christianity. Well, that clearly can’t be done, since I don’t understand Kierkegaard any better than I did prior to listening to this podcast. All I learned is that his Christianity and Christians apparently annoyed some of the speakers, but their irrelevant annoyance tells me nothing about Kierkegaard’s actual ideas, philosophy, or mysticism.
    I found myself repeatedly aggravated that several of the speakers repeatedly diverted the topic and roadblocked it from achieving any depth about Kierkegaard, to being about their own atheism or non-Christianity or whatever, as if Kierkekaard was just a useful vehicle in which to express their own atheistic rantings.
    One person there seemed to repeatedly try to get into the meat of Kierkegaard’s ideas, but it seemed he was always prevented from doing so because he had to stop to address the not particularly useful nor insightful “village atheist” interjections of his fellow speakers.
    Anyway, it would be great if you could make another attempt to tackle Kierkegaard again, and keep the discussion restricted to being about Kierkegaard, and leave the village atheism at home.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Ouch. Well, we’ll try to do a better job with Schleiermacher, which we’ll be recording in a few weeks. I think we did a pretty good job elaborating the points made in that particular K. reading, which were all about “self” and tied in well to the Hegel’s Phenomenology episodes just posted. There’s certainly more to be said about K, though I’m not sure when we’ll get back to him. I do think a lot of the gist of the podcast is some reflection on whether we can apply what we’re finding here to actual life, and in this case that meant determining whether K. was simply too brainwashed to be of any use to anyone who was not already of the Christian persuasion. Given his reputation as the father of existentialism, this seems an apt question.

      Best, -Mark

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Ace,

      Thanks for caring enough to write in! First, an apology. I had heartily backed Kierkegaard as a discussion topic. And yet, when given the chance, I failed to explain why I’m so taken with Kierkegaard, and The Sickness Unto Death in particular. I took two messages from TSUD: the “ironic” message of Anti-Climacus, and Kierkegaard’s more implicit warning.

      ANTI-CLIMACUS: The oppositional structure of the Self leads you into a psychological spiral of despair. That’s because you can never resolve the antinomies upon which self-realization is built. Reflecting on the gap between your desires and your reality inevitably leads to despair. And most people don’t even do that! Despair (i.e., lack of faith) makes you unhappy, so the Self’s very structure necessarily leads people to sorrow (if they think about it) or delusion (if they don’t). You can escape this trap if you do the work. How? By quitting all attempts at comprehending Christianity, and accepting Christianity through will alone. This is hard work. It’s difficult to believe the impossible, because your Self’s structure forces you to endlessly reflect on life’s contradictions. But if you apply the constant effort required to “let go” and constantly reflect upon yourself standing directly before God, you will gain faith, and cure your psychological “sickness unto death”.

      KIERKEGAARD: Doubt is the bane of all Christians. Hegel’s (and Kant’s) attempts to preserve religious belief via reason will never overcome doubt. If you ever try to reach God (or preserve God) through rationally constructed philosophical systems, you will always fail. Too many people opt in to a comfortable, rational Christianity, thinking reason and religion can be reconciled. They can’t. People should stop kidding themselves that they can.

      I think it’s a mistake to accept A-C’s “ironic” argument at face value. But believers and non-believers alike can accept K’s “real” argument. The character Anti-Climacus is clever and bracing, but only if taken in the right spirit. It’s funny to see A-C use Hegel’s own systemic structures to subvert his Christian vision. So, TSUD was meaningful to me, because it cleverly argued that you can’t get religion through reason. That’s not necessarily an argument in favor of atheism (certainly K didn’t think so), though it could be. But K’s argument helps would-be Christians (say, me) to consider focusing their efforts elsewhere. Schleiermacher presents a different vision of “elsewhere,” so maybe you’ll find that episode interesting.

      OK, that was my best shot! To see some other introductions to Kierkegaard without actually committing to the many hours necessary to read him, I recommend the following:




      Regarding your other comments:

      1. PEL’s mission isn’t to survey a thinker’s entire ouvre in one episode; it’s more a kind of philosophical book club. A two-hour episode couldn’t possibly review all of Kierkegaard’s thought. K wrote many books over his life. Reading one or two of them won’t capture all his ideas. And K took great effort to ensure he couldn’t be so easily summarized — we mentioned that on the show. Yes, K’s arguments for radical subjectivity are fascinating. They’re an obvious next step if PEL ever does K again. But subjectivity simply wasn’t addressed in TSUD or Fear and Trembling. K’s thoughts on subjectivity are largely contained within Concluding Unscientific Postscript. But unless we had made CUP the reading assignment, there was no way to address it.

      2. If you read TSUD’s opening pages, it’s clearly a self-help book. The subtitle is: “A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening.” In its preface, K writes, “An account of anything Christian must be like a physician’s lecture beside the sick-bed….” Despair is a sickness (unto death!), and Anti-Climacus is out to cure you.

      3. One needn’t be a “ranting atheist” to have real problems with Kierkegaard’s worldview. As Seth mentioned, devout Jews would reject most of TSUD and Fear & Trembling, without ever doubting G-d. (Whether or not Seth is devout, the point stands.) Alternatively, to quote Alastair Hannay’s introduction to the Penguin edition of TSUD:

      “Even if you are disposed to agree about there being this religious need, perhaps also agreeing that it might be universal, there is no compulsion for you to accept the Christian scenario as a solution, even if it were the only one available. There is indeed a problem with the whole idea of believing something because one wants to rather than because the evidence pushes one into that direction. It sounds like wishful thinking.”

      4. Contrary to your assertion, a great many non-Christian thinkers found value in Kierkegaard despite his Christianity. His admirers included atheists like Nietzsche and Sartre, Jewish thinkers like Buber, and unorthodox quasi-religious eccentrics like Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Furthermore, many or perhaps most of PEL’s listeners aren’t religious. I think it’s worth trying to explain why Kierkegaard might have value for them as well. Perhaps we failed at that, too, but it was worth a try.

      5. Part of PEL’s charm is that Mark/Wes/Seth don’t simply summarize these books; they take the arguments seriously. That means calling BS where they find it. A critical flaw in TSUD’s argument is that it simply assumes a harsh Christian worldview. There’s value in pointing that out as a flaw. As you’re a fan of the show, I presume you’ve had no problem with Mark snarking on Heidegger, or Seth snarking on logical positivism, or Wes snarking on Dennett. So why is it not OK to mock the overconfident and self-righteous Christian arguments to which so many of us have been exposed? I had to Google your term “village atheist,” but it appears to be Christian fundamentalist-speak for “an atheist without the manners to keep it to himself.” I think your use of that term says as much about you as the person to whom you’re directing it. Now, if you don’t find the term “Christian fundamentalist” helpful or appropriate, query also what value the term “village atheist” brings to your complaint. No big deal either way, I’m just sayin’.

      Thanks for listening!

  5. Ace says

    To Mark and Daniel,
    Thank you for your thoughtful replies, I didn’t expect a reply at all (except maybe from other listeners), so I am very surprised and appreciative that you’re this engaged with your listeners, even one’s like me that only commented to complain.
    Thank you for the links, Daniel, I will check them out. And point taken about the show being only on a small sample of his works, and specifically Sickness Unto Death, your explanation helped me understand why his subjectivism wasn’t touched on.
    Part of the reason I like the show is it does have a casual, shoot the shit with pals- feel to it. I have laughed out loud more than once. The humor, honesty and friendliness of the program are big draws. But a major draw is that I always walk away having learned a lot more about the subject matter that I didn’t know prior, which is what makes apprx 2 hour programs worth listening to.
    But with this episode that wasn’t the case, and it was very disappointing to me because the little I have read of Kierkegaard has stuck with me, his personality and ideas which I have been exposed to were very intriguing, thought-provoking, and original.
    I agree with Mark that whether Kierkegaard would be of any use to non-Christians is an apt question to ask, but it seemed to me that it was asked and answered and not worth the 2 hours devoted to it. I don’t agree with Daniel that I made any assertion that non-Christians can’t value Kierkegaard, I made no such assertion. If I made any assertion at all in that regard, it was that it seems it must be impossible to understand Kierkegaard apart from his Christianity, a semi-assertion only made as part of my gripe that your attempting to understand him apart from his Christianity left a listener such as myself not understanding him any better than I did prior to listening to the show.
    I have seen it myself that non-Christians can get a lot out of Kierkegaard, as an example, on youtube I saw many atheists were very engaged in analyzing and digesting Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling. But how could they possibly divorce this from K’s theism? I’m not sure they can, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get anything out K’s ideas, nonetheless.
    Daniels point about Jews getting something out of Kierkegaard, I don’t doubt that, whether they be secular or religious, surely they would get more out of something like Fear and Trembling, than say a non-Abrahamic theist would.
    As I said, I didn’t make any assertion that non-Christians can’t get anything out of Kierkegaard. And just from the little I have been exposed to K, I would disagree if anyone else made such an assertion.

    And my use of “village atheist” was, essentially, a comeback to the atheist rantings about Christians, Christian fundamentalists, and Kierkegaards Christianity. I guess you could say my usage of it was my way of letting it be known that atheists aren’t exempt from personality flaws, intellectual short-comings, irrationality, and annoying others – facts which seemed to have been completely lost on the atheists in the podcast, an oversight which only helped contribute to it being made even more manifest.
    I don’t know enough about K to know if K was a fundie or not, from what I do know of him I wouldn’t think so. The little I do know of him does make me think his being called the father of existentialism to be fitting. I don’t think of Christian existentialists or mystics or Christian philosophers when I think of fundies. So the whole rant seemed pointless, and as I remarked earlier, that Kierkegaard was just a useful vehicle to rant and rave about annoying Christian fundies. These sort of brainless, and yes, “village atheist,” interjections completely ruined what could have otherwise been a really a great show.

    Thanks again to you both for your thoughtful replies and the points you both made, take my complaints with a grain of salt, I will definitely check out the links, and I look forward to your upcoming shows. :-)

    Peace to you both.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      This was a good impetus for me to re-listen to the episode, which I like to do before doing a follow-up episode (i.e. the Schleiermacher will serve as this). Just to share my time-saving hint: I like to listen on double speed, so I only spent 1 hr. instead of 2; granted this is less likely to be effective if you’re not someone who just spent several hours editing the episode a few months back.

      In my initial reply here, I was accepting Ace’s analysis of the progression of the discussion, as I could certainly picture us failing to explore lines of K’s argument if they were too reliant on assumptions we didn’t accept, and could as usual picture Seth trying to pull us back on topic.

      On 2nd listen, though, it seems like we gave K’s arguments in his words, and especially after just doing the Hegel discussion, I find his points on the self to be pretty thought-provoking, and think we did the best we could making hay of them, and the number of times when one of us (usually me) got just fed up with the Christian aspect of it was a pretty low percentage of the discussion. However, visiting Augusta, GA as I am this week and reading the irritating conservative editorials, I can understand how listener sensitivity to the irreverent tone in which the religious arguments are expressed could be distracting from getting what I think are quite a large number of details of K’s thought and how it relates to others that came up in this discussion.

      I don’t think an argument in the context of our podcast can or should include a disclaimer to say “not everyone who believes what I’m arguing against is an idiot, and it’s equally possible that I’m just wrong about this, and certainly those in my side of this general debate are flawed too.” That’s all part of the general backdrop of the podcast as a whole, and would make things unlistenable. (I notice when I edit the episodes that some of our guests feel the need to preface everything they say with some kind of humbling disclaimer, and I find myself removing nearly all of them, as it just slows down the conversation and doesn’t add anything of substance.)

      Since we’ve got your attention Ace, would you be up for responding to what I take to be the two actual anti-Christian arguments here that were the source of my frustration as expressed on the episode? Namely:

      1. Christians sometimes claim that without God, you’re in despair, even if you think you’re happy. But, really, most people aren’t WHOLLY happy, and there’s always some gnawing anxiety that they can find if they look hard enough. To me, this is just a feature of human nature that existentialists have recognized, but the Christian says “no, you can fill this hole with God!” However, based on K’s own testimony of his life and what I’ve gathered from those who’ve tried this solution, is that the hole, the anxiety remains, even for those who try to fill it with God, and K’s interpretation of this is that filling the whole is a matter of a daily struggle to reaffirm faith. But if it’s a daily struggle, then it doesn’t address the problem of despair at all. Faith as a coping strategy doesn’t seem to work any better than the alternatives, and the faithful and faithless alike seem more or less equally prone to either be anxious, or on the flip-side to be self-denying of the existential insight (i.e. to affirm that they are totally at peace and self-confident and not at all anxious).

      2. As detailed on the Hegel episode, developing a sense of self requires interaction with others: both direct, as when your parents treat you certain ways and you use that as a basis to play off of in developing who you as an adult are, and indirect, as when the culture sets up innumerable standards (of intelligence, virtue, beauty, etc.) that shape us, even in the event that we reject those standards and define ourselves in rebellion to them. K. thinks we can have this interaction with regard to God Himself, but that makes no sense to me, because even for fervent believers, God does not give you the concrete and specific interaction you need to develop psychologically. Yes, of course we have ethical standards (from society) which we call religious, and we can be shaped by social interaction with church members (which K. rejects, being an individualist about religion). The alternative seems to be living up to your own ideals… using the feeling of religion to inspire you to better reflect what you want to be. This is of course tricky to do on your own, as we’re not really objective judges of ourselves, but everybody ultimately has to do some part of it on their own, whatever your belief system (see Nietzsche, where we each try to make our lives into art, which is presumably self-judged). I still feel like this doesn’t capture K’s point, though, which is not an ethical one… not about how we act. So even granting all of K’s religious presuppositions, how do we make sense of his psychological account? Unless God is actually talking to us as He did to Abraham, and moreover, giving us nonverbal cues and approval/disapproval over time and all that other stuff that regular people do when we interact with and are changed by them, how could we possibly get a decent sense of Self purely out of interaction with God?

  6. Daniel Horne says

    Mark Linsenmayer :
    K. thinks we can have this interaction with regard to God Himself, but that makes no sense to me, because even for fervent believers, God does not give you the concrete and specific interaction you need to develop psychologically. Yes, of course we have ethical standards (from society) which we call religious, and we can be shaped by social interaction with church members (which K. rejects, being an individualist about religion). The alternative seems to be living up to your own ideals… using the feeling of religion to inspire you to better reflect what you want to be. This is of course tricky to do on your own, as we’re not really objective judges of ourselves….So even granting all of K’s religious presuppositions, how do we make sense of his psychological account?

    Hi Mark,

    I welcome Ace or others to respond to this question, of course. But I think K would say you don’t need concrete interaction with God to imagine yourself before him. Any and all interaction with God consists of a subjective inward reflection upon God. It’s OK that you don’t “know” how–or even whether–you’re interacting with God, in the same way you would interact with other people or society. Largely, I think that’s because he’s thoroughly uninterested in objective certainty. He addresses this in excruciating detail with _Concluding Unscientific Postscript_. I’ve tried to provide a useful block quote below, but I think it’s hard to absorb CUP’s argument (which, IMO, answers your 2nd question) without at least reading a synopsis of the book. Here’s the best short synopsis I have found:

    1. The subjective existing thinker is aware of the dialectic of communication. Whereas objective thinking is indifferent to the thinking subject and his existence, the subjective thinker as existing is essentially interested in his own thinking, is existing in it. Therefore, his thinking has another kind of reflection, specifically, that of inwardness, of possession, whereby it belongs to the subject and to no one else….

    2. In his existence-relation to the truth, the existing subjective thinker is just as negative as positive…and is continually in a process of becoming, that is, striving…. In the domain of thinking, the positive can be classed in the following categories: sensate certainty, historical knowledge, speculative result…. [However], [s]ensate certainty is a delusion (see Greek skepticism…); historical knowledge is an illusion (since it is approximation-knowledge); and the speculative result is a phantom. That is, all of this positive fails to express the state of the knowing subject in existence….

    4. …If God held all truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me: “Choose!”—I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: “Father, give! Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!”

  7. Ace says

    Hi Mark,

    It wasn’t your objections to his arguments, per se, that I got aggravated over, it’s not like I don’t expect you guys to analyze and criticize the reasonings of philosophers ideas and arguments. That’s part of the learning experience of the show that has been a draw for me.
    Before I go any further into it, I want to say first that having had a few days to let this sink in, I think I do owe you an apology for being more offended than I probably should have been upon reflection. Truth be told, I think I let my overall aggravation with the fashionable disrespect, verbal abuse, belittling, and trivializing of Christianity and Christian thinkers that I commonly witness among the vocal atheist community on the web, I think this podcast just triggered my collective feelings and I took it out here on – it turns out – you.
    I know I have a festering irritation with atheists online because so many of them squat all day on just about every Christian forum, chatrooms, etc, and too many seem pathologically obsessed with disrespecting Christians and going out of their way to prevent any meaningful conversation from happening by diverting the conversation to themselves by mocking, disrespect, making asinine objections, blaming Christianity for every woe under the sun, and boasting about how “reasonable”, “logical”, “rational” and “quick witted” they themselves are because they’re not “brainwashed Christians.”
    This fashionable bigotry and verbal abuse has gotten pretty old, so I admittedly have developed a hypersensitivity and an irritable disinterest in atheists [mostly lame and juvenile] objections, and their so-called sense of humor (i.e. bigotry; verbal abuse) at Christians expense.
    The way you framed your objections in your latest reply made me recall that those in fact were your central objections in the podcast, however, the way they were framed in the podcast (along with other interjections not in your reply) the actual argument was lost under the mocking tone and drawing parallels between K and annoying Christian fundies, and criticizing them and their belief in God and the Bible and whatnot. From my perspective, the way your objections and interjections in the podcast were delivered made it seem there was nothing there but the all-too-common atheist ranting and belittling designed to divert anyone from getting anything meaningful out of those annoying Christians who are by default irrational dipshits with nothing worthwhile to say.
    Uh-oh, I don’t want to get myself riled up again. :/
    Anyway, the way your objections are framed here made me recall what I missed in the podcast, and also cemented the growing suspicion that I probably overreacted and quite likely came into it with a hypersensitivity and detected more disrespect from you than what was probably actually there or intended. Upon reflection, I should have been more empathetic to your hypersensitivity and irritation with Christianity and Christians that was triggered by K, since I’m pretty sure I was suffering from the same thing with atheists and atheism that was, ironically enough, triggered by you.
    But it would be nice to see you guys make another attempt at K, because I do maintain that much of the episode was wasted on the seemingly 2-hour long concern over how non-Christians/non-theists could get anything out of K. But in episodes on people like Nietzsche, no such concern for how Christians/theists could get anything out of them even came to mind, and why not? I perceive there is an underlying assumption or an expectation that Christians/theists should get schooled by atheists, and that they should seriously consider their views, regardless of whether or not Christians/theists find atheists or their atheistic philosophies particularly interesting or useful. It’s just expected, it’s a given. So it’s not even worth asking. Yet it’s not expected or a given when it comes to secularists getting school’ed by theists such as Kierkegaard. Why not? The seeming double-standard there was very irritating to me, especially since the concern seemed to come at the expense of understanding K and his ideas. The Nietzsche episode was a really great episode by the way, the show definitely made me want to read more his work for myself. If you guys ever do consider making another attempt at K, it would be great if he could get the same treatment as Nietzsche for helping listeners (like myself) better understand K. It’s just a suggestion, it’s your show and you offer it free, so please don’t think that I think you owe me anything, because you don’t. As I said in a previous post, I totally expected my gripes about this episode to be ignored.

    As far as answering your objections, I’m not a philosopher, I’m just someone who is in the learning process and exploring ideas, and any answers I would make would only be based on my own current understanding, feelings, and experiences, 3 areas I’m not even that certain about anyway. I don’t doubt you would discover logical holes and whatnot if I even attempted to make sense of my present understanding about faith/despair. My interest in philosophy is because it has revealed to me that I don’t have an adequate understanding on a lot of things to say where I definitively stand. You won’t see apologetic defenses or canned answers from me. And because I know I’m not certain at this point in time, what I am certain of is I’m not equipped to debate philosophy nor argue in defense of philosophers assertions such as those made by K. I hope you can understand, maybe you’ve been at that uncertain place where I am right now where listening and learning has become more appealing than talking and teaching. But Daniels reply was helpful to me in understanding where K was coming from when he made those assertions, but I can’t say at this point if I agree with his foundations (like subjectivism), or even if I would make similar assertions.
    I’ll leave the debate to you guys on the show, who certainly are better equipped than I in these matters. :-)

    Peace to you, Mark. And again, I sincerely apologize, you didn’t deserve the harsh treatment I gave you.

  8. tr says

    I decided to (belatedly) take-up the challenge of responding to Mark’s questions, even though I’m a some-time village atheist. Perhaps, in the spirit of K-, I could do so under an alias (but won’t).

    I hope it does not mischaractarize M-‘s questions to reformulate them as: 1 – isn’t the fact of K-‘s life-long personal despair a counter argument to his own thesis that the triumph over despair will only come from a deep personal commitment to God ; and 2 – given the necessity of personal human interactions to inform beliefs, develop social norms, provide the thrill of participating in robust collective action, how can a deep personal relationship with God serve as the primary guiding relationship in our lives?

    Maybe like this:

    Well, before trying to defend a K-like position, a preliminary definitional point about God. I have not read enough (or much of any) K- to purport to be fluent and in a position to defend K-‘s sense of it, but from the PEL episode and other very recent short readings, I take it that the K- sense of God is not doctrinal; rather, it is substantially personal, proto-existential, and flexible. And regardless of what K- thought, that would be the only sense I could begin to defend. So, to add a little contour to a proposed use of the word, assume you can talk, i.e. you use the word God correctly, in the following ways:
    1) God is placemark in our speech, in our minds, and in the way we make sense of our emotions — for things unknown and unknowable. 2) God is a guiding principle or principles as to how we lead our lives, 3) When we feel a guidedness in our lives or a deep lightening of the load, we can refer to this as God, or of the guidedness as caused by God, or be thankful to God.

    1. So to make sense of Q1, could K- be Moses-like: seeing the path to a promised land but never getting there; feeling the load at times profoundly lighten as he more fully commits himself to the Christian heuristic of God and to its guiding principles, so he can see where it is taking him – but does not get there. He experiences the formation of guidedness, but can’t sustain it. Or maybe he is not like Moses, but we (he?) might say salvation does not require, or even allow, a permanent release from earthly suffering. That would mean not living and is why Christians (although certainly not I) credit after-life.

    2. With respect to Q2, making a relationship with God primary might mean something like this:

    By GB Shaw:
    This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

    Attributed to M. Theresa:
    People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
    If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
    If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
    If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
    What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
    If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
    The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
    Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
    In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

    In other words, the primary relationship with God does not negate the relevance of relationships with people, it wholly informs them. A K- like view would have us totally committed to notions about how we live and guide our lives, how we obtain a sense of our lives being guided, and the resulting transformation of our contact with people is a sense of inclusion in a collective human (maybe super-human) force greater than ourselves.

  9. says

    Mark, in reference to #7 I’d encourage you not to be discouraged by K’s theism/brainwashing.

    There is a lot there for edification that doesn’t require buying into the rest of the religious ideas. Just ask Sartre. K’s ideas of a) the individual forced to be accountable despite wishes to belong to a larger system and b) ‘yes, but here I am” arguments are worth exploring – whether or not one buys into his version of Christianity.

  10. Michael says

    This was excellent. Thanks to all of you. I have never read kierkegaard, but have learned a little about his ideas through secondary sources, e.g. Solomon, A Philosophy Talk episode, etc. That being said, it seems to me that any attempt to secularize him misses his point. From your discussion, I take Kierkegaard to be saying the following. The self is a dynamic relationship between aspects or polarities. As a result the self defies definition in the Platonic sense, since there is not one single fixed entity you can pin it down to. Therefore, if one becomes aware of this, one realizes that one is ultimately unanchored and ungrounded, since there is not a set self to ground oneself in. The only way out of this state of despair (this state of being lost without an anchor) is to ground ones’ self in God, since God is the only foundation encompassing enough to hold and make meaning of this dynamic self. If my interpretation is in some sense correct, then I would say that, from a kierkegaardian perspective, any attempt to find a secular solution to this problem is to trivialize it. The problem is so big (e.g. it involves the infinite as well as the finite) that the only solution is to relate the self to a God big enough to hold all the different aspects of the self. I am not sure I understand Kiekegaard correctly, but based on your discussion these are my thoughts. Thanks again, I found this to interesting.

    • Daniel Horne says

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the kind words! You’ve described the problem very well. Whether it’s possible to secularize Kierkegaard without talking past him is a fair question. I’m not sure that you can, but I’m not sure that you can’t, either.

      In any event, making the attempt is not so much to miss K’s point (believe me, we GET it) as it is to refuse to play K’s game on his terms. In other words, we were trying to accept his premises and consider whether a different conclusion might not be possible.

      For example, K’s conclusion is that you must ground your existence in God, via faith. But which God? The kind of authoritarian, personalized, transcendental, judging God which Kierkegaard proselytized? Or can it be the more impersonal, abstract, immanent God for which Spinoza or Schleiermacher advocated? And if it’s possible to do so with the latter, then why stop there? Why not attempt to ground your unanchored existence in Being itself, a la Heidegger?

      Note that Heidegger addressed this issue in Being & Time, when discussing Unheimlichkeit, or “not-at-home-ness,” and devised a solution to this very same (or at least very similar) problem.* But Heidegger’s solution looked quite different from Kierkegaard’s.

      Now, was Heidegger “secularizing” Kierkegaard? And if so, was he “misunderstanding” Kierkegaard? Or was he adapting Kierkegaard? I don’t think doing so necessarily means that one misses K’s point, so much as one rejects it. This happens all the time amongst philosophers. Kant did that with Hume, Hegel did that with Kant, Nietzsche did that with Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein did that with Russell, etc.

      *Some may argue that Heidegger’s notion of Unheimlichkeit was in no way influenced by or responding to K generally, or “The Sickness Unto Death” in particular, but you’ll never convince me of it.

  11. Michael says

    Hello Daniel,

    I received a BA in philosophy many years ago, but the school I attended was so heavily analytic that I was, sadly, exposed to very little continental philosophy. I read very little Sartre and no Kierkegaard or Heidegger. So I am working at a little bit of a disadvantage and am looking forward to learning more through your podcasts. That being said, to me the philosophers you mentioned largely accept K.’s premise since they all seem to ground the self in some form of the Transcendent – whether that is God or Being, with a capital ‘B’. It may be that in K’s model a personal God is necessary, but maybe not. However, I would say that some form of the Transcendent, a larger meaning or purpose to existence, does seem to be necessary. I would argue (and remember that I have not really read any of these people) that an argument along the lines of Sartre not only draws a different conclusion, but actually changes the premise. In my understanding Sartre denies any form of the transcendent outside of freedom itself – i.e. having a free will means being able to transcend the causal world of mere objects. Although this solution is interesting and currently a popular one, it relies on a very different understanding of the self than K seemed to have. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to discuss these things. Keep on doing what you are doing, there is a real value to it in a world seems to have largely forgotten about philosophy. Roger Scruton in his recent Gifford lectures has an interesting discussion of similar ideas. You can listen to is here if you are interested:

    • Profile photo of Daniel Horne says

      Thanks for the recommendation, Michael, will check it out! I always find Scruton engaging, though his political views occasionally grind my teeth a bit.

      Re: Kierkegaard and the existentialists, you may well have the better view. For a solid quickie introduction to K. and his legacy (other than the links I gave earlier in this thread), consider checking out Clare Carlisle’s “Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed”: You can get a sense of Carlisle’s writing style in her Guardian columns, to which I linked above.

  12. Michael says

    Thanks Daniel, Scruton’s political views grind my teeth as well. However I found his Gifford Lectures to be interesting. Take care, Michael

  13. Thomas Ball says

    Hubert Dreyfus’ commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time has an appendix that compares Heidegger’s “anxiety” and K’s “despair” and that the ultimate end state is a state Heidegger calls “equanimity”…which is not “peace” per se, as calm, but calm in the face of the change.

    To understand K’s version of Christianity, he says “a lad falls in love with a lady…and upon this everything turns”. To be christian about it means that you have a love that you would die for. Dying for your love is the test of christianity. Similar to the historical jesus (which Kierkegaard never acknowledged as necessary…but says in the postscript that histories are theories, and theories we know using inductive reasoning are “approximations”. So to be christian is not to believe in an approximation. But like Jesus (as the story goes, the myth properly understood as containing psychological truths) was the only god who had a mission. Jesus was on a mission to earth, to save humanity, out of love for humanity. Put simply, Jesus was a martyr. To be a christian is to be a martyr, or have the spirit of martyrdom. This of course happens in a “moment” similar to falling in love, where you acquire a new identity, such as knight of the lady, and is the source of your identity.

    This does not mean that you can have just any cause and die for it, like a soldier who dies for country for glory. A Christian has to do die for his cause out of his love for his cause. The Christian does not HAVE to die, but whould die if the situation called for it. Kierkegaard did not want everyone going out of their way to find ways to martyr themselves, like some pervereted versions of martyrdom. But the christian would do whatever the relationship calls for no mater what. The “no matter what” is the sense of determination you aquire in the “moment” and is properly called “Faith”.

    Kierkegaard essentially secularizes Christianity. Another example would be MLK Jr, who died for his cause out of his love for his people (assuming that is really why he was willing to die). However, when you get one of these public causes it gets tricky. Kierkegaard did say later in life that perhaps romantic love is not the best example of this. And perhaps it is more “Christ-like” (Christ-ian) to have a love for a group of people, rather than one person. But either one counts, I believe.

    • Jackson Emanuel says

      While I wouldn’t be inclined to think Kierkegaard secularizes Christianity, I agree that Kierkegaard’s analogy between theistic belief and romantic love is important. Another interesting context to put Kierkegaard’s work into comes from a more modern, Christian existentialist philosopher, Paul Tillich, who outlines the idea of having an ultimate concern in the “Dynamics of Faith.” The intensity of one’s faith in one’s ultimate concern corresponds to an equally greater doubt. However, when aesthetic ultimate concerns (such as romantic love) turn out to be finite, we are left in a state of despair. In order to alleviate this despair, we may elect an infinite ultimate concern, thereby entering what Kierkegaard would refer to as the religious stage of existence. In this model, romantic disillusionment can be what drives the individual to seek its analog in the infinite. Thus, while there are important similarities between the two occurrences, Kierkegaard never attempts to excise Christianity’s irrational elements. Perhaps it is precisely those irrational elements which make his faith infinite and tenable.

  14. Tony Gilkerson says

    Great episode and great job Daniel. I read “fear and trembling” for an under grad class and enjoyed it very much. In the end I think it all falls apart unless you subscribe to K’s Christianity. What I like about K is how he, as Mark puts it, how he bites-the-bullet. I am no longer a Christian like I was raised but that stuff gets into your DNA and so I sometime find myself still judging other’s Christianness (not as much anymore but more so when I was younger) and I would get annoyed if someone tried to reason there way to Jesus. It just never added up and I think K does a great job saying; hey that is why they call it faith! At any rate you guys coved all that so I will stop.

    I am trying to figure out when to donate and figure that I should at least donate when I make a request that I want you to consider. Therefor tonight I donated, here is my request :-)

    Please have more philosophy of science episodes. I really enjoyed episode 13 and because of that episodes I am reading Heisenbert’s Physics and Philosophy the revolution in modern science (awesome suggestion). I just attended a public lecture at OSU where Sean Carroll of Caltech discussed the Higgs Boson discovery. I love physic or the sciences in general and when I was young it was the ultimate source of truth with a big-T. But once I stumbled on to philosophy and philosophy of science specifically things changed. I still love science but no longer look to science for big-T truth. Normally this is not a big deal except when it is thrown in your face like tonight. Sean said two things, 1) we now *know* that everything is a field and we just experience particles (when you are not looking the thing-in-itself is just a field). As if mass was a property of fields and the field is what you put in you ontology. But he did not help me understand what a field might really be!? The wave/particle duality problem gone “poof” and no one called him on that. I tried but they did not take my question. And 2) when asked why do this type of research his answer was honest, not to cure cancer or anything like that, it is because we are human and we want to know the answers. The implication is we want to know the big-T truth.
    I think we the public really need more philosophical education to keep the claims of science in perspective. I commented to my son that scientists rely so heavily on equations that at some point they look at each variable as something “real” and the possibility that the equation could be some correlation model seems to get lost. Ok at any rate get your physics friend back, I need to know if someone can describe a field as anything other than a mathematical model.


  15. Dan Smart says

    A little off topic, but interesting. My main background is in computer science, and the thing I found interesting about Kierkegaard’s description of self is that it is nearly identical to what is known as a finite state machine, which is the earliest description of a working computer.

      • Dan Smart says

        Well he says that the self is the continuous reflection on a relationship between the mind and body, or mind and external world.(I was never quite sure which was a better description of his views.) If we consider each of these as a node it would look something like this. M= mind, B=Body, S= the reflection on the relation. + means This can be repeated one or more times and * means can be repeated 0 or more times.
        / – -S- -\
        / ^ \
        v |+ v
        M B

        This is similar to a FSM with the language of ((MB)+(BM)*S+) +. Which in general means M relates to B at least once and B relates to M at least once which relates to S at least once. The only thing this is really missing is a starting and terminating node. FSM have an entry location and an exit location. I don’t think this is what K had in mind, but it is interesting to say the least.

  16. Doug Pinkard says

    I know you guys probably still aren’t done being done with ol’ Kierkegaard, but, as you DID promise to revisit the melancholy Dane in a couple of years and it has now been four, may I suggest the two best of his works I’ve read: The Concept of Irony and Concluding Unscientific Postscript? I’ve read both Sickness and Fear without ever haven gotten particularly excited about either, but “Concept” and “Concluding” are both better reads in terms not only of content but of style. Give ’em a shot! Thanks.

  17. Profile photo of Tracy Crook says

    I guess everybody’s favorite episode or philosopher is the one they find the closest personal connection to and this one was mine (my choices are limited to what I’ve heard in these podcasts). And so I was disappointed that there was so little interest in ‘more Kierkegaard’.

    I knew full well the atheist leanings of the three hosts so I took the snark factor in stride but had similar reactions as Ace did, just not as strong. Danial did a great job of “defending the theist perspective’ while staying in the closet but I often find myself thinking these podcasts need an apologist/defender of theism because philosophy seems to be so tied to the defense or rejection of it. On the few occasions when there have been guests who do defend it, they either feel obligated to keep the skeptic’s hat on or they really have no fist in their glove.

    But to give full props to Mark & company, I was so proud and impressed with your recognition (in a different episode) that Dawkins arguments against the existence of God were lame in the extreme. His (and Kierkegaard’s) criticism of religion was valid and entertaining however.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Thanks for listening, Tracy. I think you’ll find on our more recent Ricoeur and Jesus episodes, we’re more sympathetic, and brought on an actual clergyman. We’re about to do a month of St. Augustine too (sans guest, though). I’ll admit that while I’m sure we’ll do more Kierkegaard eventually, it’s still nowhere near the top of our list at the moment.

      • Profile photo of Tracy Crook says

        Thanks for the welcome Mark. But No! No!, more sympathetic is not what I was looking for, the clash of ideas is what we come for :-) So go ‘All In’ when questioning the existence of God. I just want a more robust defense. For example, in the Ricoeur episode (I think) there was the remark (paraphrased) that we have to dismiss or at least doubt the account of creation in Genesis because science has obviously negated it. The preacher let that softball go right by him. At the very least he could have said that there could be no better description ( in the vocabulary of that day) of the Big Bang than the words “Let there be light”.


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