Thoughts after reading Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death
The Sickness unto Death is the short (approx. 130 page) book in which the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard sets forth his famous definition of a self: a synthesis of the psychical and the physical that relates itself to itself. The merits of this classic philosophical work have, of course, already been proven by time. I will not therefore attempt to catalogue its numerous strengths or presume to discuss its weaknesses. Instead, by writing this review, I intend to point out a few of the things that I found most thought-provoking about the book in light of the philosophical development that has taken place after the book was published.
A human being is, according to Kierkegaard, “a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” A human being is not a self, however, until this psychical-physical synthesis relates itself to itself. As is readily apparent, Kierkegaard does not shy away from paradox and self-reference. In fact, it often seems as though he regards self-reference as having a significant role to play in the solution to various different forms of inevitable contradiction. Contrast this to view of most logicians, who regard self-reference as a source of contradicton and paradox. In fact, self-reference has in the past been regarded as such a problem-child that one of the most typical ways of dealing with it is, in effect, to disinherit it, and kick it out of logical systems entirely (e.g., Alonzo Church’s or Bertrand Russell’s theory of types).
Kierkegaard goes on to define “God” as “that everything is possible.” He also states the definition in reverse, and notes “that everything is possible means the being of God.” Further, he defines imagination as the “medium for the process of infinitzing.” That is, it is not a particular type of “capacity,” but instead the “capacity instar omnium” (the capacity for all capacities). Definitions like these leave one with the impression that The Sickness unto Death is the book that results when you attempt to apply logic to the human soul. Such a description, however, contains not a little bit of irony, as Kierkegaard himself notoriously railed against attempts to “rationalize” Christianity. Perhaps Kierkegaard would find enough humor in the irony to forgive my painting of him as a logician.
Here, as well as in Fear and Trembling and other books, Kierkegaard maintains his sharp distinction between the religious and the ethical (for him the stage governed by reason) by locating the religious in the realm of paradox and contradiction. But today, logicians are more fascinated than ever by these very phenomenon, some even taking the view that true contradictions exist. I wonder, if Kierkegaard were around today, would he consider himself a dialetheist?
Kierkegaard appears to have an clear grasp of different logical levels and what he refers to as the “chasmic qualitative abyss” between them. He often even refers to God and man in precisely this sense, as “two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference.” He also seems to possess a natural understanding with respect to how collisions between these logical levels lead to mind-bending paradoxes and contradictions. This understanding is, to me, the most significant aspect of Kierkegaard’s work, and the key to understanding it.
This peculiar internal logic strikes me even more forcibly in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was largely influenced by Kierkegaard. Heidegger is very obscure writer, and often different to read, but the difficultly is not the same as, for example, it is with the French post-modernists, who seem to write nonsense in some kind of an attempt to prove that everything is nonsense. Rather, the difficulty with Heidegger is in the structure of his writing: he also employs a lot of self-reference, and often lacks a vocabulary to reach the underlying level he attempts to explore. Thus, he often stops to clarify that what he is saying does not “beg the question” or amount to a circular argument. Usually, when at first glance he seems to be arguing in a circle, you come to realize that he is not, because he has switched to a different level, and is trying to explain a higher level in terms of one underlying it. Strangely enough, I haven’t found any commentators discussing the structural aspect of Heidegger’s work, or Kierkegaard’s, for that matter.
In the early 20th century, the logician Bertrand Russell published a book explaining some of the more eccentric pieces of Leibniz’s philosohpy through the prism of the then recent developments in classical logic. According to Russell, what might first appear as fantastical about Leibniz’s views, was actually the result of Leibniz’s strict application of the principles of logic as he understood at the time of his writing. Unfortunately, Leibniz lacked the mathematical tools to formalize and clarify his expositions.
I am of the opinion that a similar exercise with respect to Kierkegaard and Heidegger would be a worthwhile pursuit. That is, interpreting Kierkegaard and Heidegger through the lens of modern paraconsistent logic, would, I suspect, prove to be highly valuable. After all, it often seems that the greatest advancements in thought are first arrived at intuitively, it is only much later that we have the tools available for formalization.
To the objection that a logical analysis of Kierkegaard’s work must necessarily take it out of the realm of the religious and away from God, contrary to Kierkegaard’s intent, I reply with Kierkegaard’s own words: “to be able to be forward toward God, one has to go far away from hm.”