Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, equates the human responsibility of achieving self-hood (subjectivity) with truth. Kierkegaard’s notion of self is the union of acts that relate between dualities such as finite/infinite, necessity/possibility, and temporal/timeless. This is a negative space of the Hegelian synthesis of duals that moves from descriptive to prescriptive ethics. Truth or the realization of the self is known through the active choice of relating between duals without identifying too closely with either poles (failure results in forms of despair). An important case concerns the religious duality between sin/faith which is powered by the tension between Christianity’s paradox to reason and the necessity of a leap to faith. Although Kierkegaard’s process of individuation (achieving selfhood) occurred predominantly along religious lines, he introduced a number of general concepts that speaks to the human condition.


The responsibility of achieving selfhood compels one to make conscious choices at every moment. Each moment entails a great number of choices, and their multiplicity of consequences to consider lead the subject to experience a “dizziness of freedom” or angst/dread. This paralysis by analysis, or the anticipation of consequences render one immobile and unable to make a choice for fear of sin. Conversely, it is the experience of anxiety that allows one to move away from unconscious ignorance and into one’s potential for action, self-recognition, and identity.

Kierkegaard posits three existential stages of life along the way of becoming a true self:

  1. The aesthetic (the hedonist) lives for sensory experience and pleasure as a way to combat boredom; Boredom is characterized as “the root of all evil-the despairing refusal to be oneself” as it is an undifferentiated or an undirected state of consciousness. The aesthetes who avoid boredom through the pursuit of novelty also avoids commitments as it requires repetition. Common techniques to suspend boredom is through anticipation which delays gratification, and the so-called “rotation method” where one cycles between activities so that no one activity’s novelty is exhausted.  However, the mode of living is self-serving and ultimately meaningless as it ignores the dimension of other individuals or society.
  2. The ethical is the antithesis of the aesthetic where one lives a life according to well-defined rules for the good of society rather than for the self. In the process acting according to higher principles, new pleasures may be realized that could not by the aesthetic. For example, while the novelty of marriage wears off, the act of giving to your spouse and children is rewarding.
  3. The religious is the final stage of the true self which requires a commitment to the moral absolutes of God. Such absolutes are communicated not through social institutions such as the church, but through a personal relation or revelation of God. Such absolutes require a “teleological suspension of the ethical” as they may contradict that of social norms; one may have to sacrifice pleasures of both the aesthetic and the ethical to reach this. Thus, one can consider revelation (disclosure of divine moral absolutes) as the synthesis of the pursuit of novelty (now the spiritual sphere) and the repetition of commitment (now in the subjective sphere).


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Kierkegaard describes the experience along these stages of life in terms of despair that arise from an unbalanced identification with poles of duals (lack of  finitude/infinitude, necessity/possibility). Three levels are given:

  1. The lowest level is the ignorance of one being in despair or of having a self (unconscious of self). One may be unable to realize one’s potential in life as he/she is fully in pursuit of novelty or of sensuous dichotomies of agreeable/disagreeable. He/she imagines himself happy but is actually dependent on the various objects of pleasure (materialist). Conversely, the system-builder who lives inside abstractions is divorced from experience. The system is merely a scaffold over an abyss from which the self’s relation to the concrete is  hidden.
  2. The next level is conscious despair where one understands the condition of having to relate to duals but not the specific causes. One may despair against becoming oneself and run away by becoming someone else; he/she may refuse to become a self through feelings of unworthiness. The person may even be able to identify his weaknesses but become identified with the weaknesses themselves and refuse help by God.
  3. The final level is demonic despair against the eternal itself where one is hardened by suffering and so defies any help; the person identifies with despair itself as suffering lifts him/her in uniqueness above everyone else.

Will & Representation

will and representation

Modern subjectivism acquires new-found significance in the works of Schopenhauer and later that of Nietzsche. Schopenhauer integrates a number of Eastern concepts (Buddhist striving/suffering, subject-object core) with the Western post-Kantian framework (noumena/phenomenon, thing-in-itself). His first major thought uncovers an important assumption behind Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason (knowledge/truth must have sufficient explanations); particulars that require explanations presuppose a subject that seek the explanation (subject-object divide is the root of sufficient reasons).  Moreover, sufficient explanations can be differentiated by the categories of the objects referenced; material things have casual relations, abstractions by logic, Mathematical/geometrical constructions by number/space, psychology/motivation by moral reasoning. Explanations, by such categories of objects, shall also be mutually exclusive or unmixed. This argument is used against Kant’s thing-in-itself (a mind-independent object that is inaccessible to human experience) as having caused mind-dependent sensory experience (causality between these objects is a categorical error); sensory experiences are denied their external causes and instead must be related in another way.

Schopenhauer’s answer is a Pantheist one where sensory information are not caused but instead are representations of the Will (two-sides of the same coin) e.g. the appearance of lightning is the representation of the Will of electric potential, the movement of our physical bodies as manifestation of our own wills. The unity between Will and representation in our bodies (subject with object) assigns it greater importance as it is treated as the point of reference to all other objects; acts of the will are instantly objectified by the body and thus one and the same . Will is objectified through a two-tiered approached (Platonic Ideas which are outside space-time, and then by their particulars which are constituted in space-time). The world of appearances is thus a reflection of Will (Panpsychism).


Schopenhauer’s Will is unlike that of the rational/logical self-consciousness of the German idealists of his time; Will is a wholly mindless, aimless, and non-rational urge responsible for our instinctual drives. It is blind-impulse with neither aim nor determination; such a world strives for nothing in particular but only to further fragment (differentiate, individuate) itself (through principles of sufficient reason, law of free-energy will agree). The experience of such fragmentation is human suffering and  frustration. Three solutions are posited:

  1. The aesthetic perception or merging with less-differentiated minds (discernment through objects, losing oneself in an object) and access its Platonic Idea; high-art gives spatial-temporal forms to these Ideas which allow others to more closely access them. Music has special importance as they contain the structures of the world itself along a feeling axis.
  2. Having compassion for the suffering of others as they are cut from the same cloth (from the act of Humanity itself). Recognizing the universal consciousness in everyone curbs the energy of blind impulse. Determining our own innate propensities/characteristics (self-knowledge) leads to tranquility.
  3. Asceticism or minimizing one’s desires reduces suffering and frustration; it is a form of regression into a less differentiated state and the curtailing of will to knowledge.
Will & Representation