Issue #47 December 2021

On Kierkegaard and the Autobiographical Self

Kamisaka Sekka - Swirling Snow - (1909)

Different people know us differently. They have met us during stages of our lives where others have not met us. Many of us have very few childhood friends, and our former childhood friends, if they remember us, know us differently than our recently formed friendships. We know people who know nothing about each other. The different people we have met in our lives have different images of us in their minds. They “know another me.“ All these images, in all these minds that we have encountered throughout our lives, do they form a whole? Or do they disintegrate into incompatible fragments, forgotten things from the past, secrets from the present, all of which cloud and blur each other? Are we deeply divided between all the people who know us, to whom we showed ourselves, and who might retell our story? An invited childhood friend gets acquainted with our current friends at a celebration. They narrate something from our common past that our current friends did not know. They tell a story that adds to the image that our current friends have of us. But much will remain unsaid, and many of our acquaintances will never meet – perhaps at our funeral? Perhaps it is at our funeral that our story is most fully completed, most fully told: all the speakers from different regions of our past. The biography as a totality, as an eulogy, the good word. The life story as a matter of death, of good opinion because you don’t speak disrespectfully about the dead. 

Or is it rather the inner division that constitutes us? The difference of opinions about us, the incompatibility, the impossibility of totalizing us. The secrets that we hid from the world. Saying good things, but doing bad things. Doing bad things, but meaning good things. Hiding, longing for more, breaking rules, but out of an innocent lust for life. Seclusion as a rejection of death, of the eulogy. The living speaks in shreds, what is written is completed. You hold something back because you want to salvage something. Saving something from the eyes of others, from the clutches of the world, of death, to guard something and to keep it for oneself. The inner division: only we know the ruptures, the splits, what is hidden is ours only. There is something of which we are unconditionally the owners: our divisions. Keeping people apart, separating them, separating oneself from them, so as not to open up, so as to keep something hidden. A demonic withdrawnness. The goal is a maximum of difference: each acquaintance is a star, lonely and isolated, a monad. The greed to accumulate fragments, to collect experiences, to become “rich in experience”. A desperate maximizing, just to pry something away from death.

The maximum of difference is the negation of the community, it is the secession itself. The community knows us. There is an openness inherent in the community, or it is not a community. A community where everyone withholds the most important thing is not a community. The community, in its best form, is a community of givers. It is clear and transparent. But is this a return to the totality of the eulogy? In fact, totalitarian systems demand that people give themselves wholly. Totalitarianism is a self-renunciation of all individuals who agree to give themselves to “something greater,” the state, the nation, the race. Giving must be learned and only where it is mutual does it not end in self-renunciation; but even there it threatens to devour the self in the pure exteriority of good opinion, until nothing of us remains.


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The inner divisions pertain to what Kierkegaard calls the aesthetic stage of life. The aesthetic way of life is defined by an inner division and separation, an ironic attitude in which the most important things are always held back. The criticism of this inner division marks the ethical stage of life. Here, we sense an “inner law” that drives us to overcome the division and to act consistently and in an orderly manner. The self as a continuity, from birth to death instead of the ironic intangibility. Continuity does not mean a complete, given totality; it is to be understood as a demand. According to Kierkegaard, normativity constitutes the self; the human being distinguishes itself from the animal in that its self does not belong to the realm of being, but to the realm of the “ought”. The strengthening of the self is the fundamental demand, it is the choice of a way of life, a mode of existence. The ethical demand is the demand of internal consistency. In this respect, it is not generalizable and directly confronts each individual: how will you live? Ethics is existential, not “legal”. It does not judge, does not evaluate, but directly addresses the individual: no matter what laws you choose to follow, be consistent.

Consistency strengthens the self, because it is always up to the self to chose the consistent action. External forces are themselves always subject to the course of things and cannot establish the demanded continuity. The individual decision may follow a general law, but it cannot be forced from the outside: only if I understand that I should not steal – not just that “one” should not steal –, only when I, as an autonomous individual have decided not to do it, have I really acted consistently. It may happen that someone acts “morally” by chance in a given situation. For example, they see a wallet on the floor and do not take it. But did they act autonomously? This is impossible to say, maybe they were just afraid of the law. Whether a person acts autonomously can only be decided in view of their whole life. Didn’t you steal all your life, or just this once? Did you make some exceptions? This is the only way to recognize autonomy, but even here, if we’re looking from the outside, only as a sign. In this respect, the strengthening of the self is the growth of autonomy. External dependence leads to fragmentation, to inner division, especially where it calls for self-renunciation.

Ethics is derived from consistency; its normativity is the demand for consistency. It is also consequence that creates the community. A community can arise where consistent, “stable” selves are produced. The community is the exterior of the ethical self. This means that each individual action expresses the whole, each “case” organically fits into a whole, so that not only each of my individual actions is righteous, but each of my actions expresses righteousness as a quality of my self. In this respect, the community does not demand totality post factum, ‘at the funeral’, but already in life; the multiplicity of encounters and acquaintances must result in one kaleidoscopic image. This results, in the best and only valid form community, in self-strengthening, both internally and externally. In this respect, it is incompatible with any secular moral authority that wants to control and condemn the self. It calls for a community of giving, an immanent community of friends. The ethical stage demands a harmony of the interior and the exterior; in this respect, it can also say that the one who is externally rich must – or should – also be rich internally, and vice versa. The normative demand applies not only to the self, but also to the community, which itself is only made up of selves. In the growth of autonomy, and in this alone, the ethical stage prepares the way for the religious stage.


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The religious individual, as Kierkegaard points out, is externally indistinguishable from the philistine. The philistine and the knight of faith are even similar to each other, they are like twins. Between the philistine and the knight of faith the difference is only internal. But this difference is radical. Is the philistine the ethicist? No, Kierkegaard emphasizes that the knight of faith resembles the philistine, not the ethicist. Externally, the ethicist is radically different from the philistine. The ethicist criticizes the philistine, because he only follows external rules and does not try to strengthen his self. He is satisfied with little, when there is an infinitude to discover. He acts on whims and will adapt easily to the demanded or fashionable course of action. In a certain way, his appearance is marked by indifference, just like the knight of faith, who does not care if his meal at home will be rich or poor. But the philistine is content with little, because he has a small self. In this, the ethicist is right in his criticism. The philistine does not want to be consistent, he wants to be comfortable. This is his closed mind and his contentment. But this is a false contentment, because it results from an inner emptiness.

Kamisaka Sekka, - Spring - (1909)

Why is the knight of faith content with a modest meal? Because he has won back the world. He does not want more, because he has everything. Whether the knight of faith will eat rich or poor: he is equally rich. He can not be impoverished. This poverty is quite different from that of the philistine, who may be rich on the outside, but is poor on the inside. The knight’s self does not lose anything, it can not lose anything, because his wealth is an inner one. The knight is not divided like the aesthete, he is not outwardly consistent like the ethicist – today he eats rich, tomorrow poor, it does not matter to him. The knight can only remain rich, because he has won the world. How? By resigning. The ethicist resigns internally because he has to be consistent: he resigns to his desires, his lust, he submits to a law. The knight resigns outwardly, because he has found something internal that he cannot lose. This difference is crucial. The ethicist must remain outwardly rich in order to be inwardly rich: he needs the consistency that keeps outer and inner in harmony. The knight can be rich today, poor tomorrow, his interior is unaffected. This is why Job is central for Kierkegaard. Job loses everything until he finds what cannot be lost. Or rather: he does not perish from his loss, because he has found something that he cannot lose. Job lost everything until he had only what he cannot lose. Job is not an ethicist. The ethicist, when he loses something, looks for the good action that will give him back what he has lost. If he loses his harvest, it’s because he hasn’t worked hard enough. What matters is consequence. But Job is precisely inconsistent. He loses everything, but he says he has lost nothing.

The same goes for Abraham: he can sacrifice Isaac, because he knows whether he sacrifices him or not, he will not lose him. At the beginning of Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard analyzes exactly these options, where Abraham actually loses Isaac. An inner doubt would immediately cause Abraham to lose Isaac. Abraham says that no matter whether he will sacrifice Isaac or not, no matter whether God will demand the sacrifice or not, he will not lose Isaac. And it is precisely because of this that he wins back Isaac and the world. Abraham is inconsistent, which is why we do not understand him: if he had always known that God would not demand the sacrifice, certainly, he could have confidently raised his hand. He’d know that God was just testing him. But by this, according to Kierkegaard, we misunderstand Abraham. Kierkegaard says that Abraham was actually willing to sacrifice Isaac and did not expect God to change his instruction. No matter if God changed his mind or not, Abraham claims he would not lose Isaac. This is absurd, a paradox. After all, we’d say, if God had not changed his instruction, Abraham would have lost Isaac. The ethicist says: Abraham believed until the last moment that God would never demand such a thing from him, because God is good and God loves his creation, and therefore God has necessarily changed his instruction in the end. But this is not true. Abraham had no opinion at all as to whether God would change his instruction or not. He knew that no matter what would happen, he would not lose Isaac. And this inconsistency is the most difficult thought in Kierkegaard. We always tend to join the ethicist and abandon the absurd. 

However, this happens because we take the external perspective with the ethicist. The problem lies elsewhere. It concerns death. When we die, we actually lose everything, and as soon as Abraham died, he lost Isaac and the world. The moment of loss therefore comes necessarily, namely in one’s own death. From the outside, it is of course better to keep Isaac for as long as possible, so that Isaac will also have children and tell these children about the ethical Abraham. But in this perspective, the self of Abraham is completely dissolved in the external, in the community. If he, as an ethical figure, had refused the sacrifice at the last moment, we would praise him as an exemplary father who loves his son more than anything. As an example, however, his love would be one case among many, a role model, but an imitable one.

Everything changes as soon as we start not from the probability of death, as an external event, but from its possibility as an internal event, a possibility that is always there and that necessarily comes. With possibility, the infinite enters; while the probability of me dying in this moment might be small (or, for example, smaller than if I was alone in a jungle right now), the possibility is always the same, it is always there. This perspective swallows up all the relative differences of “keeping Isaac a little longer”; if I die the next moment, I will have to give up the world here and now. The resignation of the religious stage is exactly this: the awareness that you will lose everything and the willingness to give up everything here and now – because you will regain everything. Not in the future, in the hereafter, but in the here and now, in your own self. In Abraham’s earnest relation to Isaac, in his love that he kept young, there is something that is neither generalizable nor losable. The uniqueness of this earnest relation does not lie in external factors, the fact that we met people at different times, in different stages of our lives; it is a purely internal category. However, this is not a given and demands from the self the most cruel willingness to sacrifice, as we can see in Abraham. That’s why the religious stage and its resignation is so incredibly difficult. However, it is precisely the love that was kept young that transforms the purely external, and therefore replaceable, relation – father and son – into an earnest one. We do not understand Abraham’s love for Isaac, because we can only see it from the outside, and in this it is also not an ethical category; this love is not repeatable and not generalizable, because it concerns two individuals, Abraham and Isaac. It demands that we remain in our own unique relation to the individual other that we love; and from the perspective of the ethicist, that is precisely the absurd.

We must radically distinguish the inconsistency of the knight of faith from the division of the aesthete. The aesthete believes that he enriches his self through division. In this respect, he can lose everything if the division falls apart, if he becomes unified after all, if he loses the secret. The inconsistency of the knight, on the other hand, can neither enrich nor impoverish him, it is that which he cannot lose. Neither division nor openness make up his essence: he does not care whether the meal at home is rich or poor, Abraham does not care whether Isaac will be alive tomorrow or not. Therein lies his amorality, but also his innocence. To sin out of and in innocence is perhaps the greatest inconsistency.

What kind of love is this that constitutes the third stage? It cannot be an ethical category in which a whole expresses itself in the individual relation, as a value or as the totality of a personal trait, because then it would be generalizable. But it also cannot be an aesthetic category, because nothing is hidden in love, and it is also not a mere fragment, because if we only give a part of ourselves in love, this love is worthless. In love, everything is given, but neither as a whole nor as a part. Could it therefore lie in the fact that, for the sake of mutual growth, for the sake of this singular love, we become the self that the other needs? Once again as an inner division, but not as fragmentation, and rather as a mutual becoming, based on notiones communes, the willingness to cultivate that which is shared, and which constitutes love? It is clear that this thought carries a lot of obscurity and it might happen to sound a bit philistine. An external similarity with the aesthete arises: the division as ‘value’. But it is not about accumulating and maximizing fragments, it is also not about hiding; it is also not about the singular action expressing the whole, not about the encounter of two given totalities. And rather that in this encounter we become something that we weren’t before.

This will to transform in the encounter, to become visible as a candid existence and therefore to give up one’s old personae, is the condition to encounter the other as they are. When we resist, “show character,” we distance ourselves from the other and introduce prejudices and opinions. We take the other as we need them, and not as they are. In this respect, this ‘adaptation’ is not a masking, but it also follows a ‘law’: the notiones communes, the law of mutual flourishing. We can see the other as they are, because we take ourselves and our prejudices back, we become a mirror. But there is no self-negation in this. It is a will to get to know the other, to learn from them, to grow, but also to share. Such relations demand a transparency that is not the openness of the ethical self, but the transparency of the crystal, which, even when it mirrors everything without distortion, still retains an obscure side. The mirror does not show everything, but only what it reflects. And this reflection, if it is mutual, is the source of incredible wealth. But it is also the most difficult thing in life.


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The plurality of the biographical, that many people know different aspects and facets of us, is not measured aesthetically by our amount of fragments and experiences, nor by the final image that arises at our funeral, as an ethical gathering of the community; each such encounter – if it is able to flourish and become love – is rather a becoming in which we do not express an aspect of our wholeness, but where a wholeness arises that stands for itself; not a fragment behind which something is hidden, but rather a transparency that is relative, immanent to the earnest relation, and therefore cannot be generalized – and perhaps cannot include more than two people in each individual case. There may be a spark of eternity inherent to this love, even if it should end externally.

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is currently writing his PhD at Paris 1 Sorbonne. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.


December 2021


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On Kierkegaard and the Autobiographical Self

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