Random Philosophy Question

So I’m taking John Richardson’s course on Existentialism at NYU this semester, and recently we’ve been reading Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. Like much worthwhile religiously minded philosophy, it has a lot that I like, some stuff that I think is interesting on a metaphorical level, and some stuff I find absolutely ludicrous. Problem is, I can’t figure out which is which when I’m missing pieces of the argument.

At the heart of Death is the idea that each and every one of us is in despair, because we’re unable to reconcile our grasping at an understanding of the infinite with our own limitations, and our desire to realize our massive potential with the burden of what we must do by necessity. The way out of this despair, he writes, isn’t to abandon the infinite in favor of the self or vice versa, but to somehow (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong here because this is where it starts to get confusing for me) “relate the self to itself” and embrace both the finite and the infinite through a personal relationship with God.

There are some people, he writes, who have managed to do this, so it is conceivably possible. But I can’t find a reference in the book to who any of those people are, or what attributes, besides not being in despair, that they all share. But surely there must be something they all have in common that no one in despair does, because if there’s no qualitative difference between being in despair and not being in despair, what makes the latter preferable?

That sounds like it should be an easy question to answer. Obviously not being in despair is better; that’s why it’s called “despair.” Except you don’t necessarily realize you’re in despair in the first place, and there’s such a thing as demonic despair in which you abandon any aspirations to the infinite and become wholly consumed with realizing yourself.

Granting all of Kierkegaard’s premises, which means accepting his definition of despair and notion of how to eliminate it, I just don’t see how you get to the conclusion that people who aren’t in despair are qualitatively better off than, say, people in demonic despair.



2 Responses

  1. Kierkegaard has a subjective philosophy. He believes that the most important parts of life are purely subjective (maybe the ‘relate self until itself’ is another way of saying ‘introspection’). One of those is faith, which cannot be objectively proven. Complete faith is a way to overcome despair. A cynic might ask: ignorance is bliss?

    Kierkegaard is also Danish and therefore subjected to the most miserable weather imaginable… must have had an influence on his complex writing style – it seems to be …. maybe the best word is just ‘blah’?

  2. You should read Fear and Trembling; it makes some of this more concrete. For one thing, he’s very clear that Abraham deals correctly with despair, and how.

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