Understanding the notion of "self" has always been a problem for empirical philosophy. Of course
for Plato it was the soul, and for Aristotle the composite of soul and matter. But both Plato and
Aristotle began with the assumption that everything that existed did so for a purpose and that
purpose was part of what it is. Descartes accepted the Greek concept of the self essentially as
explained by Aquinas, but Descartes was not an empiricist. For him knowledge came from
reasoning, not from experience. John Locke was an empiricist, but in his theory of knowledge
things we experience create ideas in our minds. Our reasoning about them deals only with these
images. Since they represent things in the world, the only real changes from Aristotle were the
shift from final causes to efficient causes with the resulting emergence of abstract thought.
However, for Hume and those that followed him, like Kant and Hegel, experience is only of
sensations, or as Kant called them phenomena. Hegel developed an empiricist concept of self in
his "Phenomenology of Spirit," but as in all empiricism, it led to another form of idealism.
The development of a phenomenological concept of self faces a number of difficult problems. For
example consider Descartes' "Cogito," "I think therefore I am." At first glance it seems clear.
But what is it that is thinking and what is it that is? Aristotle said that thinking is a matter of
becoming what can be thought. For that reason he said that mind does not exist until it thinks of
itself. But experience in a phenomenological sense is a mental operation on sensation. Are the I
that is thinking and the I that is the same self? From which do we derive the sensation of
thinking? Hegel saw it as both a dualism and a unity. In
The Logic Hegel described the self as a unity in these terms.
By the term "I" I mean myself, a single and altogether determinate person. And yet I
really utter nothing particular to myself, for every one else is an "I" or "Ego," and when I
call myself "I," though I indubitably mean the single person myself, I express a thorough
universal. "I" therefore, is mere being-for-self, in which everything peculiar or marked is
renounced and buried out of sight; it is as it were the ultimate and unanalyzable Point of
consciousness. We may say [that] "I" and thought are the same, or, more definitely, [that]
"I" is thought as a thinker.
This is where Kierkegaard's philosophy parts with Hegel's, and to a great extent most of his
predecessors. The unity of thought and being that makes Hegel's concept come together is the
point of departure for Kierkegaard. Hegel's self, like everything else in his philosophy is
completely logical and completely objective.
Kierkegaard said that Hegel contrived a world with no one in it. But we should hear this in Kierkegaard's
The systematic Idea [of Hegel's] is the identity of subject and object, the unity of thought
and being. Existence, on the other hand, is their separation. It does not by any means
follow that existence is thoughtless but it has brought about, and brings about. a
separation between subject and object, thought and being.
Kierkegaard said that we exist as particular men. So, Ethics is a task for the individual. It is not
determined by some "world-historical" entity, as Hegel would have it. Hegel said that truth is the
agreement of an object with our conception of it. A true soldier is a soldier in the fullest sense.
Truth, said Kierkegaard, is subjectivity. It is applied to subjects, not to objects. Subjectivity is
the essence of man. Man is free. He must choose. He is ultimately responsible for his own
choices. Man, thought Kierkegaard, is passionately interested in his life, his death, his eternal
happiness after death, his very existence. Revelation is only a guide. It settles nothing, because in
the end each man must interpret the signs as he chooses. Thus truth for each man is his own truth
and he is bound by necessity to find it.
As we saw in our discussion of the Middle Ages European man guarded his freedom jealously.
Kierkegaard brought the concept of freedom to a new high by maintaining that man's freedom
implies a total rejection of the Aristotelian telos. There is no final cause towards which the
individual must strive.
The principle that the existing subjective thinker is constantly occupied in striving, does
not mean that he has...a goal toward which he strives, and that he would be finished when
he had reached that goal. No, he strives infinitely, is in constantly in the process of
If there is no absolute for man, and if God is the absolute, then the coming of God to earth for
man is a logical absurdity. Thus, Christianity is an uncertainty. Faith, that turning to and
acceptance of god that is so important for the Lutheran, is a step man must make himself. He is
not bound to it by some inner necessity.
Without [an intellectual] risk [regarding the objective truth of ones beliefs] there is no
faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual's
inwardness and the objective uncertainty.
Kierkegaard is the father of existentialism. The basic approach of the existentialist is developed
directly out of his thought. Each man must make himself. It is an act of the will. He is what he
wills himself to be. Kierkegaard outlined three spheres of existence, the aesthetic, the ethical, and
the religious. A man can exist in only one of these spheres of existence even though the
characteristics of all three are included in every self. The sphere of existence in which a person
exists is the direct outcome of his will. A person may move from one sphere to another. But he
must will himself to do so.
The lowest sphere of existence is the aesthetic. This excerpt from Thomas Gallagher's "Soren
Kierkegaard" taken from Frederick Patka's Existentialist Thinkers and Thought
expresses the concept of aesthetic existence much better than I can.
The essence of the aesthetic view is the pursuit of the pleasurable in a primary and
exclusive way. All aesthetes accept as axiomatic the imperative "live for pleasure," while
for the educated aesthetes, those with more refined sensibilities, it becomes "satisfaction in
life" and "enjoyment is to be sought in the development of a talent." This talent can be
poetic, literary, or even philosophical.
As long as the guiding principle is that of "enjoy ones self," the aesthetic sphere is not to
be transcended and it is unessential what the object of that enjoyment is. The aesthete
who happens to be a poet or an artist agrees in essential with the aesthete who happens to
be a sportsman or a reveler.
The pleasurable is immediate, momentary. The aesthete therefore, constantly seeking pleasure,
moves from moment to moment losing himself in multiplicity. Each moment, therefore is a
moment of uncertainty and even when experienced is unsatisfying leading the aesthete to a life of
boredom and despair. The ideal aesthete is of no value to himself, his friends, or society. His
only escape is to move to the next higher sphere of existence, the ethical. He must make this
move as an act of his will.
With no ethical system of his own Kierkegaard utilized Kant's approach through the concept of
duty. For a description we will return to Gallagher.
In more technical terms Kierkegaard regards the universal as a synonym for duty. The
task of the individual is to realize duty or the universal (or the general). This universal or
duty is what is required of all; it is what all should do. Yet the duty of each individual is
not duty as such but this or that particular duty which applies to him in this instance. Such
an application of the universal to the individual is another way of expressing the aim of the
ethicist. Regarded in this light the aim of life is to reveal itself as the unity of the universal
and the particular. For example―the universal states that fathers should love their
children―as applies to the individual it means that Abraham should love Isaac. The
universal states man should marry; as applied, it means that Kierkegaard should marry.
Thus., the ethical life gives constancy and purpose to the life of the individual. The culmination
of the ethical life is Christian marriage. Such a union orients the individual to a standard that is
not determined by the whim of the moment, as would be found in the life of the aesthete. The
sensual and the romantic that are part of the Christian marriage will be transformed to include all
that is lacking in the aesthetic view of sexual relations. In the words of Gallagher, "In short,
marriage is the highest end of the individual human existence and the culmination of life in the
We can see that the ethical keeps what is best in the aesthetical life but brings it to a higher plane.
So too for the next step, the religious. All that is found in the ethical, the devotion to duty, the
individualistic approach to the performance of duty must be maintained in this highest sphere.
The problem that Kierkegaard saw in the ethical sphere was that it placed God in a subordinate
space. Again, as in the move from the aesthetic to the ethical. the move from the ethical to the
religious sphere must be accomplished through an act of the will.
The commitment to the unprincipled independence of the individual may have come from his
rejection of Hegel. It may have come from his cultural heritage as a European. It may have come
from his Lutheran beliefs. It probably came from all of these. In his eyes the individual stands
alone. There is no settled human nature. Human subjectivity is not essentially rational. It
involves reason, feeling, and imagination cooperating together. The words of Kierkegaard
awakened a strain that seemed dormant in Europeans, the deep-seated need of the independent
man. That it was not just a Christian or Lutheran concept is obvious because it found its way into
the thought of such people as Sartre the atheist, and Heidegger, the Nazi.