413. (Søren Kierkegaard)

This is the first in what will be a multi-part explication of Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety.

Kierkegaard writes The Concept of Anxiety as if he needs psychology and metaphysics (the two are inseparable) to make sense of Christianity. Maybe this is why it is so thrilling a work: because the beliefs are not asked to serve, but to be served by metaphysics. I suspect that a Christian would struggle as much with accepting Kierkegaard’s arguments as an atheist, since the metaphysics are asked to stand on their own, whereas for a Christian, the power of the metaphysical argument might be undermined if the version of Christian dogma to which it leads (i.e. Kierkegaard’s refusing to accept the serpent, even symbolically, as a meaningful element in the Bible) is intolerable. I’ve found it helpful to approach the text with the revival of idealism at my back, and this perhaps because the revival of idealism has Wittgenstein at its back, and Wittgenstein, to some degree, has Kierkegaard at his. For it seems evident that Wittgenstein’s famous remark that logic will take care of itself and that we just need to watch was inspired by what Kierkegaard writes in The Concept of Anxiety: “Let logic take care to help itself.” And even that “the qualitative leap” that is a limit to the metaphysical psychology of Kierkegaard’s argument bears some relation to Wittgenstein’s remark that “light dawns slowly over the whole.” I encountered that aphorism recently in reading John McDowell’s essay on action in Hegel; this is the idealism I had at my back, an idealism that does not want to leave life behind, that wants to ease our anxieties.

Kierkegaard takes Hegelians as his targets; to him, they evade without even the possibility of easing, without even understanding what there is to ease. Anxiety—the possibility of freedom, directed towards nothing at all, a possibility of possibility, open to nothingness—is missing from the (in his word) “airiness” of their account of self-consciousness, an account that fails to reckon with the existence of the self, as a truly lived existence. But nonetheless, Kierkegaard’s deepest intuitions and ways of moving are Idealist. When he argues against equating sin with selfishness, he argues against the emptiness of the concept of “selfishness” which is not only dependent upon, but defined exclusively by the measures of first-person experience, such that it cannot be universalized (Socrates’ injunction “know yourself” is rendered feeble otherwise); he is objecting to the appeal to a “self” as a stable, universal concept when, by its nature, “self” is individual. This is true to a Hegelian conception of self. But it also indicates where Kierkegaard will go beyond the Hegelians, since for him, the airiness of self-consciousness is inadequate to what he means by “spirit,” a term that in many respects seems very near to self-consciousness, just as “knowledge” might be taken as a watery equivalent to “guilt” (Kierkegaard says that innocence is ignorance; so guilt is knowledge; but this very equation shows what is missing in a Hegelian account). And yet Kierkegaard’s rejection of Hegelian terms and moves, while being more than a recasting, is a sort of necessary (to him) reinvention, so that something remains of them, allowing for the analogies to be discerned. In particular, for The Concept of Anxiety, is essential to appreciate the Idealist distinction of individual and species, which has been recently articulated and re-articulated by Sebastian Rodl:

We may bring a human being under a species. But as we do so, we do not apprehend her as an individual. She is an individual as every determination of hers is informed by her, indeed, every determination of hers is she herself. No determination of hers maintains an independence of her, no determination of hers is the determination it is independently of being hers. In every determination of hers the whole is there, the whole that she is. This whole, therefore, is unembeddable. She cannot be subsumed under something larger than she. For so to subsume her would be to think a determination of hers that is something other than she herself. The notion that the human being is an individual thus is the idea that the human being is universal. The human individual is the determinacy that is universality, and the universality that is determinacy.


An animal gives another animal its nature: this is generation. As an animal has its nature by nature, an animal is not itself its own species; it is an instance or a bearer of its species. Thus its coming to be is itself by nature and is the repetition of the distinction of the specimen from the species. An individual gives herself to another individual: this is teaching. An individual is not an instance, a specimen, an exemplar. Its coming to be is not by nature and thus not a separation of the specimen from the species. Teaching does not result in instances of a kind. (The name of a university is not a brand name.) It is the imparting of the principle of self-determination.

 (“Teaching, Freedom and the Human Individual”)

The initial tension in Kierkegaard’s work, and one that must be grasped if the sections on sexuality and sexual difference in relation to sensuousness are to be grasped as doing real metaphysical, and not just parochial dogmatic, work depends on the doubleness that Rodl gets at. For Kierkegaard, the individual is part of a species (as a bodily, biological form), with a race, and a history of that race, born into reproduction and bound through this to a temporality that is fallen (this is why the temporal is viewed as sinfulness; this is why the sexual is also, once sin is posited, viewed as sinfulness—more on this later); but the individual is also, as in Rodl, an individual, with a sense of their own infinitude of thought, and their capacity to think infinity and eternity. They are not simply body (the species) or mind (the psyche), but a synthesis of the two, since the individual knows herself as both body and mind, as a relation of the two, and then is able to not only relate the one to another, but to reflect upon this relation so that the relation, as it were, relates to itself; this is Kierkegaard’s version of self-consciousness. And it is in the synthesis of self-consciousness that Kierkegaard calls spirit that anxiety arises as the spirit awakens from the possibility of possibility to freedom’s objectless unbounded possibility. Initially, in ignorance, the spirit is in a state of “entangled freedom,” in which, as Kierkegaard writes, it faces “a nothing that communicates vigorously with the innocence of ignorance,” in so far as possibility is itself on a possibility of freedom, not yet actual.

Then, in a story that remains psychological, the spirit comes to know the possibility of freedom, but still without an object: possibility itself opens up. And it opens up, Kierkegaard says in his brilliant reading of Genesis, when confronted with language. God, Kierkegaard says, could not speak to Adam in the Garden; instead, it is language itself that speaks to Adam. Adam hears his own language and is confronted with the enigma of meaning, and in this, his desire is awakened to know; this is the awakening of spirit to the possibility of freedom and the birth of anxiety, the ambiguous breach in which the qualitative leap to guilt and sin is made (or not).  In his account of Genesis and Eden, Kierkegaard offers an account of the emergence of self-consciousness—light dawning slowly over the whole—we learn a language, but what we learn remains foreign to us; he has recast the Hegelian story of consciousness from the Phenomenology in which, as McDowell stresses in his reading, the self comes to know itself as other (not to rely upon external recognition). Language itself, and the distinction it draws is, in the prohibition in Eden, an enigma; it compels us to know more.

Here is the Freudian tradition—and Lacan and the “non/nom” of the father—anticipated. Adam’s own speech is an enigma to him, drawing a distinction, a contradiction, “good and evil” that is also a prohibition, “no,” that he cannot understand; but whose force is nonetheless evident: here is something that limits the possibility of the possibility of freedom and so stirs anxiety. It is really contradiction itself that is the enigma of language: the contradiction that is opposition of words within the language and the contradiction that is the opposition of speaker to hearer (not necessarily different people). It is now the case that spirit knows freedom as a possibility, a possibility of one thing or another, a possibility of yes or no, and this gives the anxiety from which the qualitative leap to guilt is made.

The most initially vexing and challenging of Kierkegaard’s arguments concerns sexuality and sexual difference. It can seem at first that Kierkegaard speaks solely in the prejudices of his time when he declares that females are more sensuous and more anxious and also weaker, and so the first to fall. And he does speak from within the sexism of the Christian myth and from within the sexism of his era. But in a movement characteristic of Kierkegaard, he works from within these limitations to advance a metaphysical argument that leaves them behind. In the briefest form, the sensuous—the empirical—is predominates more strongly in females of a species because the very distinction of female/male as Kierkegaard posits it depends upon two reproductive capacities, with the female gestating and giving birth to an infant; the female of a species is more embedded in the temporality of generation, in her bodily attachment to an infant, from Kierkegaard’s perspective. Her reproductive organs make her the individual responsible for giving birth. Her spirit is more aware of itself as both a species and an individual. Crucially, for Kierkegaard the spirit, as infinite and indeterminate as self-consciousness, balks at this relation to species; it cannot reconcile itself to it:

The sexual is the expression for the prodigious contradiction that the immortal spirit is determined as genus. This contradiction expresses itself in the profound ‘Scham’ that conceals this contradiction and does not dare to understand it. In the erotic, the contradiction is understood as the beautiful, for beauty is precisely the unity of the psychic and the somatic. This contradiction, which the erotic transfigures in beauty, is for spirit at once both the beautiful and the comic. The expression of spirit for the erotic is, therefore, that it is simultaneously the beautiful and the comic.  


But why this anxiety? It is because spirit cannot participate in the culmination of the erotic. Let me express myself in the manner of the Greeks. The spirit is indeed present, because it is spirit that establishes the synthesis, but it cannot express itself in the erotic. It feels itself a stranger.

This leaves itself open to a question and an objection. The objection is the Kierkegaard is, without knowing it, simply a prude; the question is how this anxiety relates to the anxiety that is freedom’s possibility.

The answer to question and objection alike has to do with time. The body is a source of anxiety not because of the sinfulness of sensuality. Kierkegaard is at pains to repeat that he is not arguing this. He is arguing that sensuality becomes sinful after the qualitative leap. Instead, the body is a source of anxiety because it is a reminder of the species, the species being that which is both repeated in time, and finite on an individual level; with each additional member of the species, the awareness of a past becomes greater, since there is quantitatively more of a past for the species (and with that, the sense of inherited sin grows greater). The body, and sensuality, are inherently temporal. We could extend this to accounts of empiricism: knowledge that is empirical, that depends upon the senses, is a priori temporal: the senses depend upon time. Time is built into consciousness of what is sensed. The anxiety here arises because the sense of self as a species in time, and as a mere species, rather than an individual, alienates the spirit from its condition. But even this does not go far enough. Alienation, after all, is not Kierkegaard’s term. Instead, he returns to the notion that arose at the start of the book: to the task of the spirit:

In childbirth, the woman is again at the furthest point of one extreme of the synthesis. Therefore the spirit trembles, for in this moment it does not have its task, it is as if it were suspended.

The spirit, we might say, confronts the impossibility of certain sorts of freedom, or the limits of possibility, in the sensuous. At the moment that Kierkegaard imagines, so extreme in its sensuous, so much a matter of species history, that the contradiction of individual and spirit, which is itself the “task” (“like every contradiction it is also a task”), is suspended. But the key word in this phrase is “in this moment,” for in it Kierkegaard introduces his essential concept of temporal experience. The discussion of temporality clarifies when Kierkegaard writes, and not near its start, that: “The synthesis of the temporal and the eternal is not another synthesis but is the expression for the first synthesis, according to which man is a synthesis of a psyche and body that is sustained by spirit. As soon as the spirit is posited, the moment is present.” There is no third term, Kierkegaard, tells us, between the temporal and the eternal—no equivalent to spirit, because the temporal and the eternal are an expression of spirit, in so far as the spirit (self-consciousness is helpful again here) can conceive of the eternal as well as the temporal, and in so far as human thought seems, in its structure, to depend upon some such concept of timelessness, of the transcendence of time as a river or (as Kierkegaard says) infinite succession.

We are thrown into temporality not only in our thought as individuals, making sense of past, present, and future—though Kierkegaard suggests that the only actual aspect of time is time past—but also, simultaneously, as members of a species with a species-history.  A human, Kierkegaard says, is the synthesis of time and eternity, that synthesis being expressed in spirit, being constituted by and constitutive of spirit—and what Kierkegaard takes as the ground for so strong a claim is not dogma but his own experience of time, which permits him to speak, and for us all to understand him when he speaks, of a “moment.” The word “moment” or “instant,” or any such word stands to eternity as an infinitesimal division in calculus stands to infinity: those are not physical presences but metaphysical structures that allow for us to exist and make sense of what is physical. So the “moment” is not a unit of time, since a moment cannot be established, always passing, without borders, without quantity, not because it is immense but because it is persistently elusively small:

…the moment is precisely not the present, because the intermediary between the past and the future, purely abstractly conceived, is not at all. The moment is not a determination of time, because the determination of time is that it “passes by.” For this reason time, if it is to be defined by any of the determinations revealed in time itself, is time past. If, on the contrary, time and eternity touch each other, then it must be in time, and now we have come to the moment.

Anxiety lives in the moment: in the moment, in the conception of a moment, the qualitative leap is possible, in the moment change happens, in the moment, the metaphysics of thought exceeds the grasp of quantity. It is not an arbitrary, but a necessary element of human thought, metaphysically described. It is with by the moment that self-consciousness knows itself: “Nature’s security has its source in the fact that time has no significance at all for nature. Only with the moment does history begin.” The moment is what makes it possible to conceive of past, present, and future, because the moment is none of these, while also being temporal; it is our vantage point on time from within time, a vantage point that we otherwise imagine as the timelessness of eternity, which is why the moment the intersection of the eternal and the temporal: “Thus understood, the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first refection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.” And, also: “The synthesis of the temporal and the eternal is not another synthesis but is the expression for the first synthesis, according to which man is a synthesis of a psyche and body that is sustained by spirit. As soon as the spirit is posited, the moment is present.” And, finally: “The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time.” The Greeks serve as both exemplars and foils for Kierkegaard: Socrates’ comic irony is a response to anxiety where no qualitative leap to faith and guilt was possible (Kierkegaard writes in The Concept of Anxiety of Socrates’ finding comedy in the erotic; the comic there arising from the spirit’s overcoming the erotic by indifference, as in Socrates’ stated preference for an ugly woman).

Here, the Greeks serve Kierkegaard as foil: they possess, he says, no developed conception of the moment, even though Plato approaches the problem, when he recognized, as Kierkegaard accuses the Hegelians of failing to, the “the difficulty of placing transition in the realm of the purely metaphysical and for that reason the category of ‘the moment’ cost him so much effort.”  Instead, the Greeks, lacking a moment, place the eternal, like Wordsworth, in the past: “For the Greeks, the eternal lies behind as the past that can only be entered backwards”—the Greeks lack the notion of a moment.  “If there is no moment, the eternal appears behind as the past.” But lacking the moments, the Greeks do not lack a conception of the eternal. They could not, since the eternal is, like temporality, an aspect of human thought. We can glimpse the essential Christianity of “spirit” ; were it merely a term for “self-consciousness,” he could not deny “moment” to the Greeks. The “moment”—and a new way of doing metaphysics—was enabled by metaphysics, Kierkegaard believes (here Christianity serves him as inspiration, though we might dispute whether he is correct, and say that his metaphysical insights thought not possible to him, as a thinker, without Christianity, are not, in the shape of thought, dependent on Christian revelation; but look also at how, for Christians, revelation matters differently and more—here is maybe where Barth found power in Kierkegaard). To live in the moment in the right way is a charge of Christianity; and that in itself entails a rejection of time from within time.

As a matter of metaphysics, if we embrace the moment, we embrace eternity: “Precisely because every moment, as well as the sum of the moments, is a process (a passing by), no moment is a present, and accordingly there is in time neither present, nor past, nor future.” This establishes the qualitative leap to guilt: we are anxious confronted with freedom’s possibility, but because we are not wholly individuals, because we are also members of a species with a species-history, because we cannot help but think in time, even though the injunction to think in and of the moment is real, and the urgent demand of Christianity, we fall short, always falling back into time as only past, present and future: “The pivotal concept in Christianity, that which made all things new, is the fullness of time, but the fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and the past.” (And this is because “If one does not pay attention to this one does not get the past by itself but in a simple continuity with the future” and “with this the concepts of conversion, atonement, and redemption are lost in the world-historical significance and lost in the individual historical development”—for Kierkegaard Christianity both inspires and demands a better metaphysics than Hegel, say, can offer). This is where guilt emerges; this is the leap to sin; this is how sensuality (inherently temporal) and sexual difference (inherently temporal, related to the species-history) become sinful.  But it is possible to misapprehend the moment, to live in it as a mere figment of the temporal: “The moment sin is posited, temporality is sinfulness. We do not say that temporality is sinfulness any more than that sensuousness is sinfulness, but rather that when sin is posited, temporality signifies sinfulness. Therefore he sins who lives only in the moment as abstracted from the eternal.” The moment offers freedom a possibility that is not in time; but to see the moment as eternal, to accept this, is to take the qualitative leap:

The moment signifies the present as that which has no past and no future, and precisely in this fact likes the imperfection of the sensuous life. The moment also signifies the present as that which has no past and no future, and this is the perfection of the eternal.

That is why, with some wordplay, it can be said that the leap is a moment’s work: “Just as (in the previous chapter) the spirit, when it is about to be posited in the synthesis, or more correctly, when it is about the posit the synthesis as the spirit’s (freedom’s) possibility in the individuality, expresses itself as anxiety, so here the future in turn is the eternal’s (freedom’s) possibility in the individuality expressed as anxiety. As freedom’s possibility manifests itself for freedom, freedom succumbs, and the temporality emerges in the same way as sensuousness in its significance as sinfulness….this is only the final psychological expression for the final psychical approximation to the qualitative leap.” Psychology, and this work, can only take us this far; it cannot get inside of the leap itself. So far at least the argument runs through “The Anxiety of Spiritlessness.”


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