Reading Notes by Lisa Blasch, edited by Mark Unno

Soren Kierkegaard,The Sickness Unto Death

Editor's Notes:

Kierkegaard wrote many works under pen names (pseudonyms), adopting different names for different life philosophies:

1) Aesthetic view of life - aesthete (finite): Always looking for new amusements in this finite world of appearances. (See "Either" section of Either/Or)
2) Ethical view of life - ethicist (infinite): Duty to a higher moral principle; infinitely resigning or giving up desires in this world. (See "Or" section of Either/Or)
3) Religious view of life - believer (finite and infinite): Belief that one can be true to the infinite reality of God while living in this world of desires. (See Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Sickness Unto Death).

Kierkegaard writes dialectically, which means he writes in a way that traces the movement of thought as it follows the movement of life. For example, he writes of the dialectical movements of the self, which means the way in which the self comes into existence through continually relating to the finite and the infinite. The dialectic is this logical movement between differing or opposing entities.


My previous familiarity with Kierkegaard begins and ends with Either/Or and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, where he presents the reader with an opportunity to contemplate the increase of freedom in the dialectical development of the self through aesthetic, ethical and religious transformation. Leaving aside the problems associated with the pseudonymous authorship of SK's texts, The Sickness Unto Death represents a continuation of the themes of selfhood in Either/Or, in the sense that much like the aesthete "A," individuals are caught between the immediacy of the world and the pressure to choose to become themselves. However, the decision to become a self introduces the problem of understanding what the essence of the self actually is. The individual who falsely relates the content of the self to either just the finite or just the infinite fails to be truly self-conscious and remains caught in one or more stages of false relation, each indicating a different form of despair. I'll begin by briefly considering the dialectical self as the origin of difficulty for the development of self-understanding. Next, I evaluate what Kierkegaard means by the concept of the self caught in despair. Finally, I will briefly consider the sinful self as the highest form of this despair.

The Dialectical Self

The choice to become oneself hinges upon a distinction between what we might call the ordinary, empirical self and the infinite self that transcends all temporal conditioning. This distinction calls up Kantian worries about the possibility for human freedom in a world of determination. Still, the self is not exactly composed of an outright division so much as a synthesis of opposites that produces anxiety the more explicitly the tension is realized. Every person is possessed of a "soulish-bodily synthesis" which must become evident before progress to self-hood can be accomplished. In this way, the self is formed through two stages of relation. Initially, self-awareness begins with the individual's relation to the world of immediacy, however the progression toward "becoming spirit" is already included as the second relation within the first.

The Nature of Despair

All of us, being particular creatures, form attachments to our anxiety even as we seek to be free from them. As a form of anxiety, despair involves mis-relating the synthesis of finite and infinite within self and consequently fixating on what is not truly ourselves. The individual in this condition is left with a form of the self which is less than satisfactory, and the discontent springs from an inability to do away with one's own inadequacy and impotence. Interestingly, the closer one comes to an awareness of the dialectical nature of the self and the connection to the infinite, the greater one's suffering becomes. Initially, the least self-conscious form of despair appears to produce no sense of despair whatsoever. Individuals caught up in the immediacy of life may not despair in the sense that they lack the means for perceiving their own inadequacy, and therefore this is the lowest form of self-hood as it fails to press us on toward a reconciliation with the infinite.

Once despair becomes conscious, the individual has realized that he or she is not the self they wish to be. Kierkegaard identifies two modes of conscious despair. The first, which I will review here, is characterized by the weakness of not willing to be oneself. The first form of this despair is that of fatalism. An individual has the sense that identity depends upon relation to an other, but understands the other of the identity-relation in circumstantial terms, such as through family or social position. When fortune alters, this person falls into a confused state, finding no possibility for self-assertion. The second form of despair consists of a greater degree of introversion: this individual is more conscious of his or her weaknesses and allows the fear of this weakness to act as an obstacle to self-development. These forms of conscious despair catch the individual up in the desire to escape the self they find themselves burdened with, manifested in attempts to chase distractions, wait for transformation either from within or without, or even abandoning hope and lapsing into depressed obsession with their own insufficiencies and anxieties.

The Sinful Self

Despair involves an inability to fully come to terms with the self, however this is not yet sin. Sinfulness involves an unwillingness to accept the relation of the self to the infinite before the eyes of God. Whereas the previous forms of conscious despair provoke the individual to be anxious about their own weakness, an individual suffering from the third form understands more concretely why they do not want to progress toward full self-hood and therefore will remain defiantly opposed to a full relation to the infinite. Essentially, this individual comes to some abstract awareness of his or her infinite nature, yet refuses to acknowledge the necessity of giving this self up to the divine in order to fully come into being. Rather, he or she prefers to remain in a false moral universe in which humanity is the measure of all things, and by exalting the wordly life denies that there is any non-human eternal standard to be held accountable to. Ultimately, this rejection is grounded in attachment to the abstract self, the fear that turning one's attention to the otherworldly will deprive one of the √ęjustification' for being as they are. The comfort of faith would require the loss of the self as this individual understand it, and therefore they choose a life of spiteful suffering and rage.


Kierkegaard encourages the individual to find meaning within the self that is not dominated by externalities, however the argument depends on a belief in God for much of its force. If we substitute a secular basis for this search, how do we escape the category of sinfulness? In other words, can this analysis work on a humanist framework?