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Danish devotional philosopher S. Kierkegaard (b. 1811/1813, d.1855) is one of the most singular thinkers of his time. Few can compete with him in the influence on spiritual and intellectual life of both XIX and XX centuries. In his philosophical-religious doctrine S. Kierkegaard touches upon issues associated with crisis of personality, which formed the basis of European philosophy of the XX century: loneliness, “escape from freedom”, fear of future and responsibility for it…

Existential-Christian image of man created by Kierkegaard to overcome highly rationalistic tradition, to take into account the “multilayerness” of internal life of spirit, to demonstrate its dramatic nature, as well as to dispel the illusions of enlighteners of XYIII century about harmonious development of personality, gradually accumulating new positive spiritual qualities. As a researcher of human soul Kierkegaard is an astute observer. His remarks about the motives of human actions, peculiarities of natures and value systems astonish with their accuracy.

Examining the internal world of personality, the philosopher could not ignore the issue of human freedom. Kierkegaard extended the problem of freedom into psychology. Psychology, as Kierkegaard saw it, did not presuppose scientific ways of research. His attention was focused on such questions as How unconscious action is done? Do we know anything about the first action that makes man independent, spiritual and free creature? What is the state preceding the birth of freedom?

Therefore the purpose of the present article is examination of Kierkegaard’s concept of freedom.

In his speculation concerning freedom, Kierkegaard refers to France Baader, whose interpretation of freedom of will is based on hypothesis that the will can become conscious about its freedom and orientation only through the choice determined by external circumstances.Baader’s problem of beginning of the conscious man as a free creature is formed as a theological question: how was the transition from innocence to guilt made? For Kierkegaard, Baader has overlooked an important intermediate moment, so why his explanation is incomplete. “The transition from innocence to guilt merely through the concept of temptation easily brings God into almost an imaginatively constructed [experimenterende] relation to man, and ignores the intermediate psychological observation, because the intermediate term still is concupiscentia(inordinate desire).Finally, Baader’s account is a rather dialectical deliberation of the concept of temptation instead of psychological explanation of the more specific” [1,p. 142]. What is the intermediate moment Kierkegaard is talking about? He claims that this state of innocence from which the transition to the state of guilt is performed, is ignorance, unawareness. But how could one lose ignorance, if it does not exist? Kierkegaard answers this question by the following: “Innocence is ignorance. In innocence, human is not qualified as spirit, but is psychically qualified, in immediate unity with his natural condition. The spirit in man is dreaming… In this state there is peace and repose, but there is simultaneously something else that is not contention and strife… What, then, is it?Nothing. What effect does nothing have? It begets anxiety. That is the profound secret of innocence, that is at the same time anxiety…” [1, p. 143]. The state preceding freedom is, according to Kierkegaard, the state of anxiety.

The object of anxiety is nothing; therefore “nothing”, i.e. it is anxiety that induces man to lose the state of innocence (ignorance) and become consciousness, spirit. “Nothing” is the beginning of freedom.

Thereby “nothing” turns from a negative concept to a positive one. In is anxiety as a subjective form of experience that helps human to cross the verge from ignorance to knowledge, from innocence to guilt, it is anxiety that makes human to violate the God’s precept and eat the apple from the tree of the knowledge. Biblical Serpent is anxiety. “Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology. <…> The concept of  anxiety (Angst) is almost never is treated in psychology, Therefore I have to point out that it is altogether different from fear (Fureht) and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility. For this reason anxiety is not found in the beast precisely because by nature the beast is not qualified as spirit”[1, p.144].

The distinction between anxiety (Angst) as indefinite, with “nothing” as a subject, and fear (Fureht), introduced by Kierkegaard, was adopted by existentialism in the XX century. Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers also distinguish these notions: fear is an empiric phenomenon, whereas anxiety is a form of experiencing “nothing”, where an individual touches the last verge of his existence – finiteness.

Analysis of Kierkegaard’s notion of anxiety makes it possible to discover the character of his doctrine, where philosophical-religious and psychological approaches closely interplay.

Indeed, what is anxiety? Kierkegaard himself describes it as an ambiguous concept in nature: it is sympathetic antipathy and antipathetic sympathy [1, p. 144]. Oxymorons “pleasing anxiety”, “pleasing anxiousness” express ambiguity ofthis spiritual phenomenon. Children’s experience of this state is best for observation. “In observing children one will discover this anxiety intimated more particularly as a seeking for the adventurous, the monstrous, and the enigmatic. That there are children in whom this anxiety is not found proves nothing at all, for neither it is found in the beast, and the less spirit, the less anxiety. This anxiety belongs so essentially to the child that he can notdo without it. Though it causes  him anxiety, it captivates him with its pleasing anxiousness” [1,  p. 144].

“Nothing causes man’s ambiguous attitude to himself: on one hand it is repulsion, on the other hand it is attraction; the anxiety is attraction at the same time. Ignorance (innocence) is that ambiguous state, therefore the philosopher calls the transition from it dialectic: “…he who becomes guilty through anxiety is indeed innocent, for it was not he himself but anxiety, a foreign power, that laid hold of him. <…>And yet he is guilty, for he sank in anxiety which he nevertheless loved even as he feared it. There is nothing in the world more ambiguous…” [1, p. 145]. Kierkegaard was albe to analize such ambiguities. Investigating the notion of anxiety he develops his concept of spirit: “Man is a synthesis of psychical and psychical; however, a synthesis is unthinkable if the two are not united in a third.This third is spirit. In innocence man is not merely animal, for if he were at any moment of his life merely animal, he would never become man. So spirit is present, but as immediate, as dreaming. Inasmuch as it is now present, it is in a sense a hostile power, for it constantly disturbs the relation between soul andbody, a relation that indeed has persistence and yet does not have endurance, inasmuch as it first receives the latter by the spirit. On the other hand, spirit is a friendly power, since it is precisely that which constitutes the relation. What, then, is man’s relation to this ambiguous power? How does spirit relate itself to itself and to its conditionality? It relates itself as anxiety” [1, p. 145]. In the condition preceding man’s qualification as a spiritual, a free creature, spirit exists only as a possibility. Kierkegaard defines it as anxiety; thereby the first form of self-experience of the spirit is anxiety.

Initially anxiety is anxiety of “nothing”. If there is anxiety, there is an object of anxiety. In assumes the shape of anxiety to violate the prohibition.Therefore violation of the prohibition, precept becomes the object of anxiety. In this connection the philosopher gives an interesting interpretation of the biblical myth about the Fall. God prohibited Adam to eat from the tree of the knowledge. But Adam, according to Kierkegaard, could not understand God, because in the state of innocence he did not know what were good and evil. Knowledge of difference between good and evil could only be the consequence of violation of  God’s prohibition. One would think the Bibical myth to become pointless, but for Kierkegaard, it does not happen, because the God’s prohibition means that Adam felt anxiety. In this situation he apprehended what he could not apprehend consciously, for he did not have consciousness yet. Adam’s anxiety was anxiety of violation and desire to do that. If that is the case empirically, the philosophic view of the issue is the following: it is necessary to clear what is the origin of the consciousness itself, to examine the consciousness at the moment of transition from nonexistence to existence; when prohibition from outside is out of question, because there was nobody to perceive it. This philosophic interpretation is based on the fact that anxiety is begot by prohibition.

Through this singular way Kierkegaard comes to understanding of the propositions connected with taboo in primitive consciousness. “When it is assumed that the prohibition awakens the desire, one acquires knowledge instead of ignorance, and in that case Adam must have had a knowledge of freedom, because the desire was to use it. The explanation is therefore subsequent. The prohibition induces an anxiety in him, for the prohibition awakens in him freedom’s possibility. What passed by innocence as the nothing of anxiety has now entered into Adam, and here again it is a nothing – the anxious possibility of being able. He has no conception of what he is albe to do; otherwise – and this is what usually happens – that which comes later, the difference between good and evil, would have to be presupposed. Only the possibility of being albe is present as a higher form of ignorance, as a higher expression of anxiety, because in a higher sense it both is and is not, because in a higher sense he both loves and flees from it” [1, p. 146].

Thus, anxiety is “freedom’s possibility”. There is freedom in it already, but, as Kierkegaard’s puts it, it is “entangled” [1, p. 150].“Entangled freedom” and “freedom’s possibility” are the same thing. But it is not entangled by something external, but by itself. The fact that both opposites are united in state of anxiety expresses freedom entangled by itself. How is the actual freedom begot from this possibility?  “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence anxiety is the dizziness offreedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness. Further than this, psychology can not and will not go. In this very moment everything is changed, and freedom when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science can explain”[1, p. 160-161].This reasoning by Kierkegaard has been repeatedly quoted by existential philosophers. Dizziness as experience of freedom is Sartre’s favorite metaphor. For Kierkegaard the act of birth of freedom, the transition from inconsciousness to consciousness, from innocence to guilt is unknowable.But the state preceding this act is its prerequisite between freedom and unfreedom, the state that the thinker call “anxiety”, makes it possible to understand freedom as an initial ambiguity. Freedom born from such ambiguity brings it inside as the Original sin. The act of expression of freedom is seen by Kierkegaard in the state of weakness: “…freedom weakly falls in the state of dizziness…” This moment of weakness is emphasizes repeatedly by the philosopher: “Anxiety is feminine weakness, in which freedom faints. Psychologically speaking, the fall into sin always takes place in weakness…”[1, p. 161].

Born in sin always carries this Original sin; born in weakness always carries weakness; freedom for Kierkegaard is primarily affected by disease of weakness. However, freedom would not be ambivalent if it were mere weakness: weakness is a form of expression of selfhood. Therefore Kierkegaard claims    that “Anxiety is of all things the most selfish /selfstische /” [1, p. 161]. We can say that he sees the first step of freedom as an act birth of selfhood.

Eventually Kierkegaard does not give any answer to the question how the transition is made from freedom to unfreedom, from inconsciousness to consciousness – the transition itself is a mystery to him. However anxiety is the first form of freedom; and freedom comes in anxiety as conjunction of contrasts – repulsion and attraction. This nature of anxiety allows revealing the core of freedom. The freedom becomes ambiguous, like anxiety. On the one hand it is desired, on the other – it is dangerous and anxious: the experience of freedom is agonizing.  “Every man is condemned to freedom” – this aphorism by Sartre expresses the understanding of freedom, unknown to European world outlook before Kierkegaard.

Since man is anxious about freedom – it is his misfortune; since it is needful to him – it is his guilt. Along with understanding freedom as guilt, Kierkegaard raises the issue of responsibility.The most paradoxical point in his doctrine about responsibility is that act of the fall of freedom takes place in state of dizziness (unconsciously), nevertheless an individual must bear responsibility for everything made by him in this state. Furthermore, since an individual committed a crime unconsciously, neither he nor anyone else is able to estimate his guilt, thus he must be responsible for all the evil in the world.

For Kierkegaard, bearing the blame is a way to overcome anxiety. By bearing the blame and overcoming anxiety man makes the first step to comprehend his nature, the first step to freedom; the first free action induces out-of-nature, spiritual human reality, where man is kind and evil on his own volition, and he has nobody to shift responsibility on.


1.Translator’s note: Kierkegaard S. Concept of Anxiety//Fear and Trembling/Translation from Danish by N.Isaeva. – Moscow: TERRA-KnizhyKlub; Respublika, 1998.

Written by: Vasilieva Nina Aleksandrovna
Date Published: 04/18/2017
Edition: ЕВРАЗИЙСКИЙ СОЮЗ УЧЕНЫХ_ 30.04.2015_04(13)
Available in: Ebook