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Kierkegaard and Death

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Few philosophers have devoted such sustained, almost obsessive attention to the topic of death as Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard and Death brings together new work on Kierkegaard's multifaceted discussions of death and provides a thorough guide to the development, in various texts and contexts, of Kierkegaard’s ideas concerning death. Essays by an international group of scholars take up essential topics such as dying to the world, living death, immortality, suicide, mortality and subjectivity, death and the meaning of life, remembrance of the dead, and the question of the afterlife. While bringing Kierkegaard's philosophy of death into focus, this volume connects Kierkegaard with important debates in contemporary philosophy.

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1. Knights and Knaves of the Living Dead: Kierkegaard’s Use of Living Death as a Metaphor for Despair

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1.

 

Despair is the sickness unto death, this tormenting contradiction, this sickness of the self, perpetually to be dying, to die and yet not to die, to die death. For to die signifies that all is over, but to die death means to experience dying, and if this is experienced for one single moment, one thereby experiences it forever.

—KIERKEGAARD, THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH

 

 

 

For some time now the impression has been growing on me that everyone is dead.

It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt, this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: “In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but—” or “Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However—” and I think to myself: this is death.

 

2. To Die and Yet Not Die: Kierkegaard’s Theophany of Death

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2.

 

Periissem, nisi periissem [I would have perished, had I not perished] still is and will be my life motto. This is why I have been able to endure what long since would have killed someone else who was not dead.1

—KIERKEGAARD, SØREN KIERKEGAARD’S JOURNALS AND PAPERS

Confessing in this journal entry from 1848 that, without dying willingly, death would have prevailed over him, Kierkegaard discloses how a life of suffering has prevented death from laying its claim to one who was already dead. Kierkegaard’s appropriation of the Latin aphorism further expresses an integral spiritual dialectic at the heart of Lutheran Christian subjectivity, that is, the power of a metaphorical or symbolic death to deliver the soul from the prospect of its actual eternal death. Or, more existentially, the voluntary death to oneself by which the self is delivered from its own living spiritual death: an undead condition of the self—articulated by Kierkegaard through the rubric of despair—that anticipates or forebodes its final, absolute death at the conclusion of a life unconscious, or defiant, of the recognition that it exists inexorably before God.

 

3. Christian Hate: Death, Dying, and Reason in Pascal and Kierkegaard

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3.

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

—JESUS OF NAZARETH (LUKE 14:26)

We proclaim Christ crucified, [an offense] to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

—PAUL (1 Cor. 1:23)

Should Søren Kierkegaard be listed among Christian apologists such as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, or even Blaise Pascal? Focusing on his connections to Pascal, twentieth-century scholars Denzil G. M. Patrick and José Raimundo Maia Neto claim that Kierkegaard is, in fact, engaged in the same sort of project.1 Kierkegaard himself seems to lend support to these claims when he states, “I have never broken with Christianity … from the time it was possible to speak of the application of my powers, I had firmly resolved to employ everything to defend it, or in any case to present it in its true form” (PV, 80/SKS 16, forthcoming). Even without the lens of the comparison with Pascal, passages like this one have led to some confusion about Kierkegaard’s views on rationality in the service of faith.2 But I believe that his defense as “true description” is not the sort of defense that an apologist of Pascal’s stripe is engaged in. Simply put, Kierkegaard, unlike Pascal, is not interested in helping Christianity appear more reasonable or seem more palatable.

 

4. Suicide and Despair

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4.

 

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.

—ALBERT CAMUS, THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS

The Sickness unto Death. Already the title indicates a deep affliction with the problem of suicide, although the book is presented as a treatise on the modern self in despair. Suicide is not mentioned until a later stage of the analysis, when Kierkegaard suddenly breaks into a short discussion of how suicide influences despair. Then he admits, albeit in brackets, that this is what the entire investigation is about—in a “more profound” sense. The question of suicide thus seems unavoidable for any reading of The Sickness unto Death, but its significance has, so far, hardly been acknowledged or properly analyzed. In remedying this lack, I see here a chance to approach the entire problem of self and despair once more, from different angles including sociological, cultural, and psychological, as well as theological and philosophical.

 

5. Thinking Death into Every Moment: The Existence-Problem of Dying in Kierkegaard’s Postscript

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5.

Doing philosophy may be hazardous to your health, resulting in a condition of “absentmindedness” or distraction in which you forget yourself.1 In such a case, philosophy becomes an activity that positively interferes with the age-old Socratic task of attending to and caring for the self, and may even have the opposite effect of making people “incompetent to act” (CUP, 1:135/SKS 7, 126). If you are the type of person who is drawn to philosophy and perhaps insufficiently aware of its hazards, then what could be more valuable than a book that seeks to alert you to these dangers, and in the process even exhibits for you a manner of doing philosophy that is perfectly compatible with attending to yourself? In my view, Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript is just such a book. It is a work of philosophy that has both diagnostic and therapeutic aims, drawing its readers’ attention to a condition they may have, or to which they may be prone, while also harking back to Socrates and to a “simpler philosophy” that is “presented by an existing individual for existing individuals” and according to which wisdom falls within the domain of ethics and concerns above all the question of how to live (CUP, 1:121/SKS 7, 116; cf. CUP, 1:309/SKS 7, 282).

 

6. Death and Ethics in Kierkegaard’s Postscript

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6.

One of the aims of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript is to recover an “ancient” model of ethics—“the subjective ethics,” or “the so-called subjective ethical” (CUP, 1:144–47/SKS 7, 134–36)—and defend it against the “objective” approach that has become the norm “in modern parlance” (CUP, 1:133/SKS 7, 124–25; trans. modified). Johannes Climacus, the Postscript’s pseudonymous author, expresses the difference between ancient/subjective ethics and modern/objective ethics as follows. Modern ethics, he quips, answers the question fundamental to all ethical inquiry—the question “What am I to do?” (CUP, 1:133/SKS 7, 125)—with “the modern slogan … ‘What the age demands!’” (CUP, 1:144/SKS 7, 135; trans. modified).1 Since this answer points me to a fact about the “age” rather than a fact about me, it implies that if I wish to discover my ethical calling, I ought to “strip away … my subjectivity” and become as “objective” an “observer” of “world history” as I can (CUP, 1:131–33/SKS 7, 123–25). In Climacus’s opinion, however, to overlook one’s self in this way is to do precisely the opposite of what true ethics requires, namely, attending closely and continuously to one’s own nature. Accordingly, Climacus denounces modern/objective ethics as “the demoralizing ethics,” a pseudo-ethic that hinders genuine ethical activity (CUP, 1:144/SKS 7, 135).

 

7. The Intimate Agency of Death

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7.

Midway through his fluid meditations in Moby Dick, Melville presents us with a particularly hair-raising incident. A fourteenth-century British commander has conquered a French town and demands his fair tribute in victory. He asks for six citizens to step forward to be hanged. The mayor and five others advance with halters around their necks. This fright snaps us alert—not just to cruelty, but to our mortality. And within a page, Melville assures us that a philosopher, sitting by the fire contemplating death, can be as aware, afraid, and deeply cognizant of death as anyone mounting a gallows. We all live, as he puts it, with halters around our necks.1 He has us aware of our own halters by delivering us to the terror of others—not unlike Kierkegaard’s giving us the terror of Abraham, knife drawn, to incite our own worries about faith and the terrible divine.

These intrusions of death can snap us awake the way imminent danger can, but we would hope to learn more than naked fear. Such fear can be overcome, and with courage, it should be; but an awareness of death is more than fear, and it should not be overcome. For Kierkegaard, it can be a sustaining and continuously transforming spring of life. For Melville, it can impress us with the melancholy tragedy of life, even amidst life’s joys and celebrations, and, perhaps, it can inspire us with heroism.

 

8. A Critical Perspective on Kierkegaard’s “At a Graveside”

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8.

This short chapter is faceted to one text—Kierkegaard’s “At a Graveside.” While Kierkegaard’s thoughts on death spill across his corpus, I believe that this nonpseudonymous discourse, published in 1845, is his most straightforward and sustained reflection on what might be termed Kierkegaard’s account of “Being-towards-death.” Drawing a comparison with Tolstoy, I submit that for all the epiphanies in these pellucid pages, there is something lacking. There are other lessons to be drawn.

Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms stress that thinkers who fail to express their words in their actions do not really understand what they are spouting. Over and over again, Kierkegaard inveighs that there are two senses of understanding—one abstract and the other an understanding in which one strives to live. It does not require a sophisticated reader to grasp that for Kierkegaard only the latter counts as a true understanding. There are implications following from the connection that Kierkegaard works between words and deeds, between understanding and action. Despite all of his attempts to distance himself from his texts, I think Kierkegaard invites us to examine the sense in which our ideas have or have not become inscribed in our lives. At the risk of sounding like a crier of inwardness, I bid the reader to bear with me for a couple of paragraphs of personal narrative on my Kierkegaard studies and the issue of death—or rather of my own death.

 

9. Life-Narrative and Death as the End of Freedom: Kierkegaard on Anticipatory Resoluteness

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9.

John J. Davenport

In three recent articles, John Lippitt has raised important questions about the notions that human selves have a “narrative” structure and that the natural development of our capacity for robust selves (including autonomy and ethical maturity) involves achieving “narrative unity” in the stories that we are.1 His questions intersect with other critiques of narrative models raised in the wider and growing literature on this topic in the past decade. Lippitt forces us to reconsider claims that Anthony Rudd, I, and others made in Kierkegaard After MacIntyre that MacIntyre’s famous account of narrative unity as part of the telos of human life2 sheds light on Kierkegaard’s conception of selfhood, and that insights from Kierkegaard can help us develop and defend such a narrative model. In particular, Lippitt questions whether narrative is a useful model for real human lives, and whether movement from the “aesthetic” to the “ethical” outlook or stage of life is illuminated by the idea of narrative unity.

 

10. Heidegger and Kierkegaard on Death: The Existentiell and the Existential

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10.

The jury is still out on the nature and extent of Kierkegaard’s influence on the early Heidegger, including his magnum opus Being and Time (1927) as well as his lectures and writings prior to that work. In the “Foreword” to the 1972 edition of his “Early Writings” in German, Heidegger speaks of those “exciting years between 1910 and 1914” when, together with the work of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, he read translations of the writings of Kierkegaard.1 However, it is not evident how much of Kierkegaard seeped into Heidegger’s thought or precisely which texts influenced his own. Theodore Kisiel suggests that “there is no archival evidence to indicate that Heidegger really studied [central works of Kierkegaard’s] before he wrote [Being and Time].”2 We do know that by the 1920s he had developed an aversion to what he called “Kierkegaardism,” but it is also clear that his antipathy is directed not so much against Kierkegaard as against “the modishness of ‘Kierkegaardism’” then current among students.3 So there is every reason to suppose that Heidegger greatly admired and learned from Kierkegaard while trying to avoid sinking into “Kierkegaardism.”

 

11. Kierkegaard, Levinas, Derrida: The Death of the Other

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11.

 

“Write!” “For whom?” “For the dead, for those whom you have loved in some past.”

—JOHANN GOTTFRIED VON HERDER,
ABHANDLUNGEN UND BRIEFE ÜBER SCHöNE LITERATUR UND KUNST

“A free man thinks of nothing less than of death”1 according to proposition 47 of Spinoza’s Ethics, in which death is portrayed as a saddening thought, one which, moreover, depletes our potential to work and to think. The refusal to think about death, and specifically its association with sadness and pain for those left behind, is a constant theme in the history of philosophy. The image of Socrates presented in Phaedo, happy to accept his own death, is emblematic of the philosopher who has learned how to die. Xanthippe, his wife, is expelled from this scene in which philosophy and death come together.2 Xanthippe is not excluded just because she is a woman, but because she allowed herself to be affected by the excessively painful nature of death, and particularly the death of the Other whom we love. At one end of the spectrum stands the figure of the free man, the philosopher, who has no fear of death; at the other, in stark contrast, the figure of Xanthippe, slave to her passions, who stands as a reminder of the fragility of our relationship with death—and with life.

 

12. Derrida, Judge William, and Death

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12.

In this chapter, I attempt to take seriously Derrida’s reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling in The Gift of Death.1 In particular, I focus on Derrida’s claim that all universalizing ethical systems involve an evasion of responsibility for one’s actions. As Derrida sees it, this has important connections with mortality, since (following Heidegger)2 it is through developing the correct attitude toward my own mortality—and consequently my singularity as this particular individual—that I am able to lead an authentic life. In effect, I take Derrida to be suggesting that pursuing ethical considerations is an attempt to avoid confronting one’s own mortality and thus avoid the demands of an authentic existence. Having developed this reading of Derrida I then read it back into Kierkegaard’s conception of the ethical, particularly as it is articulated by the Judge William pseudonym in Either/Or part 2 and Stages on Life’s Way. In so doing I argue that Derrida’s articulation of the ethical is an acceptable gloss on these two works. More specifically, I will suggest that this is how Kierkegaard intended the Judge William pseudonym to be interpreted. In this way, I use Derrida to aid in understanding what I take to be Kierkegaard’s position and criticism of the ethical, as well as bring out issues related to human mortality that are not explicit in these texts.

 

13. The Soft Weeping of Desire’s Loss: Recognition, Phenomenality, and the One Who Is Dead in Kierkegaard’s Works of Love

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13.

We have only a little time to please the living,
But all eternity to love the dead.
There I shall lie for ever. Live, if you will;
Live, and defy the holiest laws of heaven.

—SOPHOCLES, “ANTIGONE”

Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

—JESUS OF NAZARETH (MATT. 8:22)

In the ninth chapter of the second set of deliberations in Works of Love, Kierkegaard writes the following words: “I know of no better way to describe true recollection than by this soft weeping that does not burst into sobs at one moment—and soon subsides. No, we are to recollect the dead, weep softly, but weep long” (WL, 348/SKS 9, 342). Much of the work in the chapter you now read is spent setting up the problematic that aims at establishing a relation between grieving and the lack of recognition from those now absent from our experience of the physical world. I will argue that Kierkegaard’s account of “the work of love in recollecting one who is dead” (WL, 345–58/SKS 9, 339–52) can be read as an application of Hegel’s description of how human self-consciousness arises through mutual recognition. The work of “recollective love” is generally thought to serve as a test of sorts in which the agent learns something about his motivation for loving others. My major claim is that this work of charity is not just a test of the agent’s motivation, but also, and more importantly, a test of faith for the agent in question.

 

14. Duties to the Dead? Earnest Imagination and Remembrance

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14.

Perhaps nothing in Kierkegaard’s writings has proven quite as polarizing as Works of Love. The reception of this work has been characterized by perennial charges that it articulates an inhuman, acosmic, inward-looking vision of ethical life. These criticisms famously begin with Adorno, who claims that Kierkegaard’s concern to avoid “preferential” love in all forms leads to an “object-less” love in which the other is reduced to a mere “stumbling block.”1 The result is an ethic whose “content is oppression: the oppression of the drive which is not to be fulfilled and the oppression of the mind which is not allowed to question.”2 “Never before,” declares K. E. Løgstrup, “has the ethical so shut itself in and shut the entire world out as it has in Kierkegaard.”3

Critics have particularly latched onto Kierkegaard’s assertion, in the penultimate chapter of Works of Love (Second Series, chapter IX), that the work of love in recollecting one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish, freest, and faithful love, and therefore embodies a standard against which our love of the living can be judged:

 

15. Kierkegaard’s Understanding of the Afterlife

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15.

Kierkegaard believed that he would experience a postmortem existence. Direct evidence for his belief may be found in his personal, pseudonymous, and signed writings. At the age of thirty-two, Kierkegaard wrote detailed instructions for the repair of his family’s burial site. Among his plans one finds lines from a hymn Brorson penned for his own tombstone. The content of the hymn suggests, among other things, that the afterlife puts an end to struggle in this life. The lines read:

In yet a little while

I shall have won;

Then the whole fight

Will at once be done.

Then I may rest

In bowers of roses

And unceasingly, unceasingly

Speak with my Jesus.1

How Kierkegaard came to his conception of the afterlife, and what he means by the terms he uses to connote it—such as eternity, the eternal, eternal happiness, eternal salvation, judgment, immortality, and resurrection—is a long and complex story.2 A complete account would involve an analysis of the influence of his Lutheran and Moravian upbringing, his philosophical and theological studies, the relationship between his signed and pseudonymous texts on the issue of the afterlife, and the impact on his thinking of the decade-long debates over the meaning of the afterlife in Germany and Denmark. All of these features have considerable bearing on the development of Kierkegaard’s conception of the afterlife.3 That said, one can usefully focus on Kierkegaard’s discussions of Socrates’s conception of the afterlife; these provide a window into Kierkegaard’s general view. Socrates’s account of immortality shapes one of the most important and enduring philosophical themes in Kierkegaard’s assessment of eternal life. From Socrates, he develops the notion that subjective interest in the afterlife affects one’s character in this life. Yet in spite of Socrates’s deep influence on his philosophical development, Kierkegaard ultimately departs from his conception of the afterlife in order to hold up what he takes to be the Christian understanding. The Socratic account of immortality is insufficient for Christian faith in the resurrection and eternal salvation, and therefore, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, untrue.4 Focusing on a comparison of Kierkegaard’s account of the afterlife with his understanding of Socrates’s approach has the merit of sharply defining the main themes elemental to his overall conception, as well as highlighting what Kierkegaard sees as the difference between what may be called a philosophical approach to eternal life and his own, Christian approach.

 

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