Wittgenstein praised Kierkegaard, but remarked also that a little of Kierkegaard goes a long way. For Wittgenstein, perhaps. But for mortal readers, the power of Kierkegaard is cumulative, successive waves of argument and exposition that climb steadily higher and higher on the beach—especially where he occupies most fully the role of anti-philosopher, in The Concept of Anxiety or Concluding Unscientific Postscript, works that embrace, and then seek to move beyond, the Greek tradition of philosophy as a way of life (as Pierre Hadot puts it), and that hold special admiration for the skeptical life of ataraxia, a sustained discipline of not-knowing, and of refusing to accept that matters of judgment can be decided.
Up to, and through, the Greeks, I find I can follow Kierkegaard, but I struggle to see how his concept of eternal happiness as ultimate telos, and the concurrent thought that humanity is both temporally placed and eternal, does not either create the conditions for an inevitable Christian despair by assuming an element of Christianity (eternity, eternal happiness) before demonstrating the need for Christianity, or else accept a Hegelian insight into the infinitude of man’s thought and being (the concept of thought itself, thought as a form of all that can be thought, necessarily being infinite, and in some sense, eternal), in the midst of arguing against Hegelian speculative thought. On one line of thought (the line of thought advanced among the neo-Hegelians of today), it does not matter: Kierkegaard recognizes the limitless measure of the good, the limitless measure of the concept of the ethical, beneath which humans act, and he either endows it with Christian alloy or else he leaves it an undeveloped claim. Kierkegaard would no doubt bristle at such a Hegelian appropriation, but he cannot claim, I think, that the acceptance of the eternal requires a “leap” when it is the thought of eternal happiness against which we live that leads to the precipice where the other “leap,” into accepting not that God exists, but that God existed, can be made.
It’s of course the verb “exist,” as it appears in the definitive Hong editions, that speaks loudest to the non-Believing reader of Kierkegaard—as much as the proto-Barth, total alterity of God, known only in the faith that He did exist, fascinates, it is even here the word “exists” that compels further reading. For to have faith that God existed (not exists; that word, Kierkegaard is at pains to stress, cannot be applied to God, since existence is temporal and human, even as the human is eternal and temporal alike) demands a faith in the actuality of God’s existence (whereas, for Kierkegaard, knowing others is always otherwise a matter of knowing their possibility, since their inwardness, which is constitutive of their existence, cannot be known), and that in turns demands an imaginative entry into the reality of God’s having once known himself as, within, and by means of the temporal, making himself present within creation, for creation. To think that God existed, as Kierkegaard puts it, is not just to believe that God lived on earth as a mortal; it is to believe that God related to his existence as mortals do, with the thought that they are both estranged from and related to an eternal happiness, and eternity. For God to have existed, God needed to despair, since, per Kierkegaard, existence is despair, a recognition of the human insufficiency in relation to the eternal.
But existence has another dimension, as Kierkegaard presents it—and it is through accumulated instances of the word, rather than by definition, that it is presented. This is the notion of being in time, knowing oneself able to reflect inwardly on what one does and on forming commitments to act. In flippant shorthand, in Kierkegaard’s understanding of existence, he finds the inwardness of action and the activity of inwardness, where the former is the depth of routine, habit, choice, and willpower, and the latter is the perpetual return to one’s own thoughts, desires, and choices that cannot be neatly grasped in “self-consciousness,” but that is an ongoing process, an activity that accompanies life, or that does not. For Kierkegaard, the Greek philosophers, doing philosophy as a way of life, were superior to the German idealists, whose ideas lived on paper, but whose lives did not, in their existences day in and day out, know what it would be embody ideas. And, as Kierkegaard makes clear, the action of existence is not just what is carried out or effected externally; it might be a decision to do or act that never comes to external fruition.
In a version of ethical theory that I’ve seen endorsed by Ronald Dworkin and Kwame Appiah, morality concerns what it is right to do and ethics refers more broadly to a flourishing life; sometimes the even more strained notion of “what we do” and “how we do it” is invoked. Setting aside whether the divide here is more than etymologically contingent, the implication is that morality concerns actions and that ethics concerns something that would require thicker description, perhaps a social context, or sense of an individual’s “life projects.” That in turn suggests that the moral is a sort of basic structure upon which the ethical can form; and if that is the case, then action itself becomes the most basic structure of all. Hence, perhaps, the field that is the philosophy of action.
This seems to me to get things the wrong way around: the ethical, if we mean an Aristotelian account of virtue and human wellbeing, resembles that inherited commonplace discourse of behavior that we all use to describe, and simultaneously explain and validate, what we think counts as the right way to act in different situations. It is informal, casual, a realm of talking. Moral philosophy, in so far as it argues about rights and obligations, can only supplement the more basic structure of the ethical in so far as it can make us reassess the dynamics and demands of any given situation—in light of a particular theory of morality, what once seemed courageous might no longer be accepted as such. In other words, the discussion of morality is additional. We test moral philosophy against the homegrown intuitions that are known as ethics, but moral philosophy can in turn help us revise those intuitions. A theory about action, the philosophy of action, becomes further afield still, in conditioning what we mean by morality.
Accepting the Appiah/Dworkin distinction, the ethical exists prior to the moral, though the moral, for the sake of philosophical argument, precedes the ethical. And this seems to be the sort of thing in philosophy that Kierkegaard wants to oppose: the effacement of existence. He goes further than the ethical as I’ve described it, though, since my sense of the ethical suggests it is can be discussed within a particular language, a discourse in which we are educated, and that helps us form the right habits. Kierkegaard pushes existence back further, into an inwardness that cannot be directly communicated, but that must speak out in its anxiety about possibility of sin (if it does not speak out, it is anxious about the good, and is the demonic). For Kierkegaard, action lives first in the knowledge of possibility, and the knowledge of possibility as we actually experience it, moment to moment—this being existence. The inwardness of action, and the activity of inwardness, resides in the perpetual suspension of possibility in which we dwell as we resolve, and resolve, and resolve, to act; time yields only further possibilities, and so the only actuality is the possibility of my further action. This cannot be communicated directly, Kierkegaard says; its inwardness is such that it cannot be actually known—known as an actuality—by another, “because direct communication implies the dependability of continuity, whereas the illusiveness of existence, when I grasp it, isolates me.” The infinite passion that is concern for oneself in time, existing, cannot resolve itself into the closure or certainty of direct communication: the genuinely existing individual “keeps open the wound of negativity, which at times is a saving factor (the others let the wound close and become positive—deceived); in his communication, he expresses the same thing.”
This places inwardness at the heart of action, and possibility at the heart of inwardness, and all of the three, action and possibility and inwardness, at the center of the ethical: they are that which makes the ethical possible from the standpoint of an individual, and without such individuals existing ethically, that is to say inwardly, there would be no ethical to speak of. Action does not follow commitment to a particular possibility, but is itself that commitment, and such a commitment is action, and is the basis of the ethical.
Kierkegaard does not comment on art much in these works, but in his own practices, writing under pseudonyms, devising fictions and narratives, projecting selves outward into possibilities of existence, he testifies to the role art has in such communication: not direct communication, but a means of speaking of inwardness, and of allowing others to speak of inwardness. He does quote Aristotle’s remark that poetry, being concerned with the possible, is superior to history, being concerned as it is with the actual—but Kierkegaard would revise that statement to say that poetry, in its open acknowledgment of the possible, is superior to history that would presume to offer actualities when possibilities are all that can be known. Responsibly written nowadays, history acknowledges the possible that supports its claims, but in its adherence to probabilities, it cannot presume to enter into the unhindered realm of the possible that is inwardness; art not only can but must; it lives on the possible and the possible is felt and known nowhere as intensely as in the inwardness of existence. Art does not communicate any actual inwardness, but draws its energies from it, and represents the possibilities of inwardness. (The “esthetic” as Kierkegaard uses it does not apply to art in this sense). He suggests that the imagination of inwardness is inseparable from the imagination of the good, and that art is essential to both.