Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Aesthetic According to Kierkegaard - definition and explanation

The Aesthetic is Kierkegaard's thought is the first part of his three stages of life or three spheres of existence.  Kierkegaard defines the aesthetic as an essentially hedonistic way of life. In aesthetics Kierkegaard does not mean fine arts or even beauty. He appeals to the ancient origin of the words according to which aesthetic is everything which is perceived by the senses. The aesthetic in Kierkegaard's view, therefore, is everything which has to do with the senses, especially their pleasure.

The aesthetic for Kierkegaard has several levels, ranging from sexual lust to the passion of enjoying the arts. The aesthetic person lives in material life and does not attempt to transcend them. He seeks no awareness or reflection of his human condition. Aesthetics does not involve morals (the ethical) nor faith (the religious). The only guideline of the aesthetic person in Kierkegaard's view is his own gratification of physical needs, reminiscent of Freud's "Pleasure Principle". Aesthetic decisions are made according to urges with no broader context, and without any moral "good" or "bad".

The Aesthetic for Kierkegaard is lowest form of human life, under the higher ethical and religious life of faith. For a broader discussion see our article on Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious or our summary of Fear and Trembling.  

Faith According to Kierkegaard - short definition

In his book "Sickness Unto Death" Kierkegaard defines faith as opposed to sin and as the complete overcoming of desperation. Faith for Kierkegaard is not a matter of rational debate and it does not have to do with any facts. Accepting the things written in the bible as such is not faith in Kierkegaard's eyes but just a matter of indoctrination. From another direction, faith for Kierkegaard cannot be inspired by historical research or philosophy. Faith is not rational for Kierkegaard who opposes it to the mental and rational and identifies it with wonder and Paradox (see Fear and Trembling for examples). Faith for Kierkegaard inspires the existential revolution of the whole soul which transcends above everyday life in which most humans dwell.  See also: Leap of faith.

Ideal According to Kierkegaard - definition

The absolute moral imperatives are what Kierkegaard calls "The Ideal". For Kierkegaard Jesus was the quintessential representative of moral doing, with us regular humans being unable to completely follow him and the moral ideal. Even so, Kierkegaard believes that Christianity commands us to acknowledge both the ideal and our inability to attain it. Without this humble acknowledgment, says Kierkegaard, concepts such as redemption and grace are left emptied out. The life of the believer reach their culmination in the dual affinity to Jesus as the supreme model which is contrasted with our own limitedness, and to Jesus as the forgiver of our own limitedness.  

Love According to Kierkegaard - Definition

Kierkegaard sharply distinguishes Christian love from ordinary everyday love. Unlike Christian love, everyday love is nothing but concealed selfishness while Christian love concerns itself with the other's happiness and well-being. Kierkegaard's Christian love does this by bestowing the other with what he really needs rather than gratifying transient and selfish desires. Christian love can therefore ignore the earthly wishes of the loved one and aim itself at aspiring longing for eternity.  

Søren Kierkegaard: Terms, Ideas and Concepts Explained

Søren Kierkegaard is a philosopher who coined many terms and concepts that are internal to his thinking (or concepts adapted by him from other philosophers such as Hegel) and reading him requires knowing them. Here we gathered some of Kierkegaard's key concepts that are central to his ideas. For a full account of Kierkegaard's thought see our Guide to Søren Kierkegaard's Philosophy or our summary of Fear and Trembling  (more summaries of Kierkegaard's writing are on their way).

Central concepts and terms in Kierkegaard's Philosophy

Summary: Fear and Trembling / Kierkegaard - Problem III - part 4

After his "foregoing discussion" (See previous parts of the summary of Problem III) Kierkegaard returns to the story of Abraham not in order to make the story more intelligible but rather in order to make the extent of its unintelligibility more intelligible. Kierkegaard restates that "Abraham I cannot understand, I can only admire him" (Fear and Trembling, p.153).

Abraham kept silent and did not let anyone in on his dire task. The aesthetic allows for silence if it can save someone, but this is not the case for Abraham who cannot save Isaac through silence. Kierkegaard also says that Abraham is not aesthetic since the aesthetic can accept personal sacrifice for others, not the sacrifice of other for the sake of the personal. Ethics, on the other hand, condemns concealment and demands disclosure that bring the inner into the light of the universal. But Abraham does not do anything for the sake of the ethical universal and he remains concealed. This leads us once again to Kierkegaard's paradox: "Either the individual as the individual is able to stand in an absolute relation to the absolute (and then the ethical is not the highest)/or Abraham is lost–he is neither a [ethical] tragic hero, nor an aesthetic hero" (Fear and Trembling, p. 154). Abraham does not speak, he cannot speak, and this is not simply a withdrawal from society but an anguishing fate of carrying your burden all by yourself. Unlike the tragic hero, Abraham would not be understood by others, and this condemns him to silence and solitude. Abraham appears as insane but inside he knows "here I am" in face of the absolute.

Towards the end of the last chapter of Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard looks to Abraham's reply to Isaac: "God will provide Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son". Kierkegaard argues that this is the only possible thing Abraham could have said to prevent everything from slipping into chaos. Speaking in every other way would have taken Abraham out of the paradox. Abraham's response is ironical, " for it always is irony when I say something and do not say anything" (Fear and Trembling, p. 157). Abraham's response demonstrates the double movement of the paradox, he does not lie since the answer captures the absurd embedded in his faith which at the same time resigns to God's and trusts him to keep his word. It is not an answer of ignorance, since Abraham is fully aware of their condition.

Kierkegaard concludes "Fear and Trembling" by once again asserting that "either there is a paradox, that the individual as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute/or Abraham is lost". 

Summary: Fear and Trembling / Kierkegaard - Problem III - part 3

To further demonstrate the difference between faith,the ethical and the aesthetic Kierkegaard appeals to the story of Agnes (Agnete) and the Merman. Kierkegaard makes some changes to the traditional version of the story about the merman seducing a girl. In Kierkegaard's version the merman is about to take Agnes to the deep when he sees a surrendering devotion in her. Unable to violate her innocent faith in him, he withdraws from his wicked intentions. Kierkegaard says that the merman too has a choice between concealment and disclosure. If he remains hidden he repents but leaves both him and loving Agnes unhappy, which will be a cause for new guilt for the merman. Another choice the merman has in Kierkegaard's account is to try deceive Agnes into not loving him anymore. This is appeal to what Kierkegaard calls the demonic which, like faith, stands outside the ethical, making the merman an individual. The merman can also either trust divine will to save Agnes or he can surrender himself to her.

Kierkegaard brings another story, that of Tobias who wanted to marry Sarah who has already buried seven husbands who were killed on their wedding night by a demon who loves her. For Kierkegaard the real hero of the story is no Tobias but rather Sarah who did not let her curse bury her. She takes responsibility for her fate as well as Tobias' and in the process endures compassion which is a form of humiliation. Like the merman, Sarah is a unique individual therefore stands outside of the ethical. She chooses between the demonic who despises others of the divine which is expresses in paradoxical faith. 

The last example Kierkegaard brings is that of Faust. For Kierkegaard Faust knows how to doubt by he also has compassion for the world and that is why he keeps his doubts silent. The ethical condemns this silence but Faust stands in his silence in absolute relation to the absolute which turns doubt into guilt, casting Faust into a Paradox

Summary: Fear and Trembling / Kierkegaard - Problem III - part 2

Kierkegaard argues that the aesthetic concealment is opposed to the Paradox of faith. The point is to try and show how faith in above the ethical while the aesthetic is underneath it (see also: Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious)     . The aesthetic treats concealment is something that eventually, by serendipity,  reveals itself with the having to pay a price for it. The ethical according to Kierkegaard does not believe in serendipity and places all responsibility on the individual's shoulders, forcing him to act in order to forge his own fate. This is why ethics cannot stand silence and lack of manifested personal expression. Here Kierkegaard asserts that "aesthetics required concealment and rewarded it, ethics required revelation and punished concealment" (Fear and Trembling, P.134).

Kierkegaard gives another example from Aristotle's Poetics about a bridegroom who, informed by a prophecy of misfortune, abandons his bride. The aesthetic would have required the bridegroom to keep a noble silence while the aesthetic would require him to speak. But in the case of the paradox of faith, Kierkegaard argues that the prophecy belongs to the sphere of the ethical, being commonly believed to be valid and its foreseen fate sealed. But if the knowledge was not delivered by the ethical priest but by some other completely personal manner, he would have had no other choice but to keep silent. His silence would be painful, but the pain comes from the same source of his assurance in his path. For Kierkegaard "the reason for his silence is not that he as the individual would place himself in an absolute relation to the universal, but that he as the individual was placed in an absolute relation to the absolute". This is not like that demand posed by the aesthetic who is constantly harassed by the ethical. Kierkegaard goes further to argue that this is why "religion is the only power which can deliver the aesthetical out of its conflict with the ethical" (Fear and Trembling, P.141).  

Summary:Problem III / Fear and Trembling by Kierkegaard - part 1

FEAR AND TREMBLING / PROBLEM III: Was Abraham ethically defensible in keeping silent about his purpose before Sarah, before Eleazar, before Isaac?

For an important background for this summary, see our article on Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious.

The third problem Kierkegaard notes in regards to Abraham's story has to do with the relationship between the individual and others. Like in problem I and Problem II Kierkegaard starts from Hegel's view that the ethical is universal, that is common to all. As universal, the ethical is "revealed" while the individual is hidden. While the body is manifest, the inner soul is concealed. This puts the ethical and the personal (the aesthetic) at odds. In order to become ethical the individual has so deny himself. 

Kierkegaard holds that if "If there is not a concealment which has its ground in the fact that the individual as the individual is higher than the universal, then Abraham's conduct is indefensible" (Fear and Trembling, p. 129). But if we can find such a case we are once again faced with the inner\outer paradox. faith resembles the aesthetic in being personal, but while the aesthetic lies beneath the ethical, for Kierkegaard faith in above it.

Kierkegaard introduced the category of "the interesting". Being interesting and leading an interesting life does not come from following a set path, it comes from the exact opposite: doing, be definition, extraordinary things that come at a high personal price (Kierkegaard gives the example of Socrates). The interesting therefore lies in the liminal space between the aesthetic and the ethical.

In order to explain this Kierkegaard looks to Aristotle's Poetics where he talks about discovery as part of the definition of myth. For there to be discovery, Kierkegaard argues, there must be something which is thus far unknown. If the discovery is relaxation of the plot, the unknown is its source of the tension. "Greek tragedy is blind", says Kierkegaard, it conceals in order the reveal. The Greek hero acts out of not knowing his fate, while modern drama in Kierkegaard's eyes " has emancipated itself dramatically, sees with its eyes, scrutinizes itself, resolves fate in its dramatic consciousness" in order to for the "hero's free act for which he is responsible" (Fear and Trembling, p. 132). What Kierkegaard is after is trying to understand the relations between concealment, the aesthetic and the paradox of faith - see part 2 of the summary.  

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