ArticlePDF Available

The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in Kierkegaard’s Writings



We may correctly say that Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential Christian-religious thinkers of the modern era, but are we equally justified in categorizing his writings as foundationally religious? This paper challenges a prevailing exclusive-theological interpretation that contends that Kierkegaard principally writes from a Christian dogmatic viewpoint. I argue that Kierkegaard’s religion is better understood as an outcome of his philosophical analysis of human nature. Conclusively, we should appreciate Kierkegaard first as a philosopher, whose aim is the explication of human subjectivity, and not primarily as an orator of Christian orthodoxy.
Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
The PositedSelf: The Non-Theistic
Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings
Abstract: We maycorrectlysay that Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influ-
ential Christian-religious thinkers of the modern era, but are we equallyjustified
in categorizing his writings as foundationallyreligious?This paper challenges a
prevailing exclusive-theological interpretation that contends thatKierkegaard
principallywrites from aChristian dogmatic viewpoint.Iarguethat Kierke-
gaardsreligion is betterunderstood as an outcome of his philosophicalanalysis
of human nature. Conclusively, we should appreciateKierkegaard first as aphi-
losopher,whose aim is the explication of human subjectivity,and not primarily
as an orator of Christian orthodoxy.
Scholars would readilyagree that Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influen-
tial religious thinkers of the modern era, ranked alongside prolific figures such
as Friedrich Schleiermacher,PaulTillich and Karl Barth. While some scholars
equallyappreciate Kierkegaard for his broader philosophical and psychological
enterprise, the Dane nevertheless remains predominantlycelebratedasaChris-
tian communicatorindeed, the earlycirculations of GeorgBrandesnon-theistic
interpretations have certainlyfallen out of favor.fWhile Kierkegaard studies in
general welcomes apluralism of interpretation, the majority of leadingscholars,
however,tend to interpret Kierkegaardswritingslargely through the lenses of
Christianity. In the Anglo-American world especially, the trend of attributingto
Kierkegaard afoundational Christian framework has for decades (and perhaps
since the earlyEnglish translations of David Swenson and Walter Lowrie)
been not onlythe leading approach, but close to the exclusive trend.c
See Julie K. Allen, GeorgBrandes: KierkegaardsMost Influential Mis-Representative,in
KierkegaardsInfluence on Literature, Criticism and Art, Tome II,Denmark,ed. by JonStewart,
Aldershot: Ashgate2013 (Kierkegaard Research: Sources,Reception and Resources,vol. 12),
pp. 1742,here pp. 17 ff. See also Lee C. Barrett, KierkegaardasaTheologian: AHistory of
CountervailingInterpretations,in TheOxford Handbook of Kierkegaard,ed. by John Lippitt and
George Pattison, Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press 2013,pp. 528549, herep.530.
In his recent article KierkegaardasaTheologian(pp. 542f.) Barrett groups the contempo-
rary scholars C. Stephan Evans,HughPyper,Bradley Dewey,AndrewBurgess,Robert C. Roberts,
Rasmus RosenbergLarsen,DepartmentofPhilosophy,University at Buffalo, 135 Park Hall,
Buffalo, NY 14260-4150, USA,
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
As noted by John Lippitt,itisevident thatKierkegaard is, with few excep-
tions, simply shut out of Anglophone philosophical circleswhich is undeniably
obvious giventhe minimal impact Kierkegaardhas had on Anglo-Americanphi-
losophy.dThistendencystandsinnoticeable contrast to the European, or conti-
nental,way of reading Kierkegaard through the philosophyofhis Danish and
German contemporariesthat is, readingKierkegaardnot necessarilyasafunda-
mental Christian thinker,but separately or equallyasanon-theistic philosopher
of human nature.
Thus, the problem is not onlythat Anglo-Americansupporters of the
exclusive-theological readingpresuppose the Christian doctrine as their premise
for interpretation. Abiggerproblem seems to be that they often fail to appreciate
the scope and gravity of the Germanic philosophicalmilieu from which Kierke-
gaardwas intellectuallycultivated.Indeed, athorough understandingofKierke-
TimothyPolk, David Cain, Abrahim Khan, David Gouwens and himself as scholars whoread
Kierkegaardasanexpositor of Christian concepts. Barrett further states: These writers point
out that the existentialist portrait of Kierkegaardasthe champion of the centered, self-legislat-
ing individual is faulty,for it ignores the constitutive roleofthe languageofthe Christian com-
munity in his writings(ibid., p. 542).See also Roger Poole, The Unknown Kierkegaard: Twen-
tieth-Century Receptions,in TheCambridge Companion to Kierkegaard,ed. by Alastair Hannay
and Gordon Marino, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press 1998, pp. 48 75,here p. 58. See
also George Pattison, Great Britain: From Prophet of the Nowto PostmodernIronist (and
after),in KierkegaardsInternational Reception,Tome I, Northern and Western Europe,ed. by
JonStewart,Aldershot: Ashgate 2009 (KierkegaardResearch: Sources,Reception and Resources,
vol. 8), pp. 237270, herep.239.See also LeeC.Barrett, The USA: From Neo-Orthodoxy to Plu-
rality,in KierkegaardsInternational Reception, Tome III,The Near East, Asia, Australia and the
Americas,ed. by JonStewart,Aldershot: Ashgate 2009 (Kierkegaard Research:Sources, Reception
and Resources,vol. 8), pp. 229268, herepp. 230ff.
John Lippitt, Kierkegaard and Moral Philosophy: Some Recent Themes,in TheOxfordHand-
bookofKierkegaard,ed. by John Lippitt and George Pattison, Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press
2013,pp. 504 527, herep.504.
See RogerPoole, The Unknown Kierkegaard,pp. 49ff. Foragood collection of nuanced
articles on the topic, see KierkegaardsInternational Reception,Tome I, Northern and Western
Although the followingcomment by JonStewart dates back to 2003,Istill believethe situa-
tion is somewhat the same today: Althoughthe research community in the English-speaking
world has witnessed anew wave of interest in Kierkegaardswork over the last several years,
the secondary literaturehas remained somewhat uneven, often treating him as afigure isolated
from the intellectual tradition and context out of which his thought was born. Fewofthe major
commentators do much to situatehis thoughtvis-á-vis the tradition of German idealism which
preceded him or the Danish philosophical milieu in which he was educated, and it is here that
manyissues and connections remain to be explored.JonStewart, KierkegaardsRelations to
Hegel Reconsidered,Cambridge:Cambridge University Press 2003,p.1.
22 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
gaardsaffiliation with the works of ImmanuelKant,Johann G. Fichte, Friedrich
J. Schelling and G.W.F. Hegel (and the Romantics, i.e., Friedrich vonSchlegel,
Ludwig Tieck, Karl Solger, etc.) has proved itself to be of crucial exegetical
importance.As recent commentators have rightlypointed out,bypresupposing
aChristian foundation to Kierkegaardsinquiries(instead of aphilosophical
foundation), one mayrisk overlooking the far more interesting viewpointname-
ly,thatKierkegaardsreligion is asolution to the existential problem he uncovers
qua his genuine philosophical analysis of human nature.Furthermore, an even
largerproblem with the exclusive-theological reading seems to be, as Poul
Lübcke correctlynotices,that it suggests that there cannot be anon-theistic
understanding of Kierkegaardsdepiction of human existence.Surely, adrastic
viewpoint; if we follow its premise, it seems to suggest that we would be justified
in simplyremovingKierkegaard from philosophicalstudies at all. One can hard-
ly imagine Kierkegaardagreeing with such aguileless approach to his purported
authorship (forfatter virksomhed).
This bringsustothe aim of the present paper.Inthe following,Iwill attempt
to challengethe so-called exclusive-theological (or exclusive Christian) reading
of Kierkegaard, which Ibelieveiscurrentlystalling the development and impact
of Anglo-American Kierkegaard-studies. Thegoal is to reveal anon-theistic foun-
dation in Kierkegaardsthinking, which Iwillargue we discover if we elucidate
and unfold his philosophyofhuman selfhood. It is this systematic philosophy
that Ibelieveprecedesand grounds all of Kierkegaardsvaluable insights.
Ifind it necessary to underline that this is not an attempt to weaken or oblit-
erate the Christian outlook we find in Kierkegaard. That would, first of all, be
naïve, but more importantly afoolish exegetical effort.Although it is an intricate
Forathorough overall philosophical contextualization cf. Michelle Kosch, Freedom and Rea-
son in Kant, Schelling,and Kierkegaard,Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press 2006.See also David J.
Kangas, J.G. Fichte: From Transcendental EgotoExistence,in Kierkegaardand his German
Contemporaries, Tome I, Philosophy,ed. by JonStewart,Aldershot: Ashgate2007(Kierkegaard
Research:Sources,Reception and Resources,vol. 6), pp. 6796.See also TonnyA.Olesen, Schel-
ling:AHistorical Introduction to KierkegaardsSchelling,in Kierkegaard and his German Con-
temporaries, Tome I, Philosophy,pp. 229276. See also JonStewart, KierkegaardsRelations to
Hegel Reconsidered;K.Brian Söderquist, TheIsolated Self.Irony as Truth and Untruth in Søren
KierkegaardsOn the Concept of Irony, Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel 2007.
See Michelle Kosch, Freedom and Reason,p.7and p. 140. An interesting comparison could be
John Elrod, Being and Existence in KierkegaardsPseudonymous Works,Princeton: Princeton Uni-
versity Press 1975.
PoulLübcke, At have sat sig selv, eller væresat vedetandet,’” Filosofiske Studier,vol. 8,
2007,pp. 112, herep.5.Asimilar point is raised by Michelle Kosch, Freedom and Reason,
pp. 139f.
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 23
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
topic, it is undeniable that Kierkegaard was apassionate believer throughout the
later part of his adultlifesomething that clearlyshines through in his overall
agenda. Quite the opposite, then, the paper should be read as an attempt to
illustrate whyKierkegaard had good reasons to emphasize religion as an existen-
tial topic. In fact,itismyconviction that Kierkegaard reiteratesthe validity of a
religious lifestyle as awhole, although from anew and non-orthodoxstand-
point.Ofcourse, as Kierkegaard was well aware, such validity cannot come
from within canonicaltheologyitself (e.g., Christendom). Avalidation of the
religious life must insteadgrow out of aricher philosophicalsoiland this,I
believe, is exactlywhat Kierkegaard was earlytorealize. In fact,asnoted by
Arne Grøn, one of the most remarkable and fundamental viewpoints Kierkegaard
promotes, which alsoserves as an opening to the religious question, is his rejec-
tion of the Cartesian idea that human subjectivity is existentiallynon-problem-
atic and self-reliantarguing that human life (i.e., selfhood as the task of becom-
ing aself)fundamentallyisaninnateexistential problem of human nature.
Kierkegaardsanswer or antidote to this problem, as we all know,isathoroughly
religious one. However,weasreaders of Kierkegaardare made aware of the exis-
tential problem of becoming aself from his non-theistic definition of human
nature, which shows that religion is not part of Kierkegaardsfoundational anal-
ysis.This, as Iwill show in detail, is the deeper notion we should appreciatein
Kierkegaard, rather than presupposing question-begging and overshadowing
religious doctrines as our pathwayinto his work.
Amoveawayfrom the staticChristian interpretationisalso amovetowarda
different sortoffoundation,which Ibelieveisless transparent,but instead more
dynamic, fertile and pluralistic. Actually, it welcomes further studies and cross-
disciplinary interpretations. As mentioned, Ibelievethat such foundation can be
found in Kierkegaardsstudyofhuman subjectivity (selfhood). In fact,acareful
analysis of Kierkegaardscorpus of work is first of all an inquiry into his concept
of selfhood.fIt is noticeable thatineverythingKierkegaardwrites,whether it is
his pseudonymous writingsorhis edifyingdiscourses,heoperates with an
underlying,solid philosophical idea about selfhood as the essential qualitative
aspect of human nature. It is from this framework that Kierkegaard manages
Forathorough elaboration see Arne Grøn, Subjektivitet og Selvforhold,Psyke&Logos,
vol. 23,2002, pp. 186 199,especiallypp. 187f.
 See Peter P. Rohde, SørenKierkegaard. Et Geni ienKøbstad,Copenhagen: Gyldendal 1962, p.
51.See also John J. Davenport, Selfhood and Spirit,’” in TheOxfordHandbookofKierkegaard,
ed. by John Lippitt and George Pattison, Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press 2013,pp. 230251, here
p. 231. See also Arne Grøn, Subjektivitet og Negativitet: Kierkegaard,Copenhagen: Gyldendal
1997, p. 9.
24 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
to structure and systematize his (at first glance) seemingly inconclusive,ironic
and scattered effort as an author.Iagree with manyother scholars that it is
overlyapparent that Kierkegaard maneuvers with arather sophisticated idea
of human selfhood alreadyfrom the beginning of his careernamely, with his
magister thesis from the University of Copenhagen On the ConceptofIrony
from 1841.ff This view is thoroughly elaborated by K. Brian Söderquist,who
argues that we should appreciate Kierkegaardsmagister thesis as a first draft
of the recurringproblematic existential task; aquestion that occupies Kierke-
gaardthroughout his lifethat is, the difficulty of taking ownership of the rela-
tionships which make up onesworld and thus the difficulty of becomingone-
self.fc It is along these lines that Iset the challengeofthe present paper.
Namely, to reveal Kierkegaardssystematic philosophical outline on human self-
hood, without presupposing aChristian-theistic foundationachallenge, which
Ibelieve, Kierkegaardalways sawhimself pursuing,via boththe personal and
the pseudonymous works,that is, seeking aphilosophicaljustification and def-
inition of the essence of an authentic lifestyle.fd
 Aviewpointcondensed with great precision in K. Brian Söderquist, AuthoringaSelf,
KierkegaardStudies Yearbook, 2009,pp. 153166,especiallyp.154.See also K. Brian Söderquist,
AShort Story:The English LanguageReception of On the Concept of Irony,Kierkegaard Studies
Yearbook,2009,pp. 493506.
 Söderquist, TheIsolated Self,p.23. Furthermore, Söderquist has also argued that On the Con-
cept of Irony is an anticipatorywork that can be used as aprism through which to illuminate
Kierkegaardsauthorship as awhole(Söderquist, TheIsolated Self,p.1). See also Gregor
Malantschuk, KierkegaardsConcept of Existence,ed. and trans.byHoward V. Hongand Edna
H. Hong,Milwaukee: MarquetteUniversity Press 2003,p.11: Kierkegaardvery earlyrealized
that human existenceconsists essentiallyofthree elements:the subject (the self), freedom,
and the ethical.
 Throughout the paper Iwill primarilyrefertoKierkegaardhimself, and by and large avoid
references to Kierkegaardspseudonymous viewpoints. This is not because Ifind the pseudo-
nyms unimportant for the interpretation of Kierkegaardswork. Rather,itisbecause Ifind the
pseudonyms inconsequential to the interpretation of Kierkegaardsphilosophyofselfhood. I
appreciate Michelle Koschsbrief comment,which sums up anon-problematic and sober view-
point concerning these matters (Freedom and Reason,pp. 10 12).Further,whathas often been
argued is that irony plays acrucial roleinunderstanding the scopeofKierkegaardspseudon-
ymous project.This,however,Istill find inconsequential for Kierkegaardsdefinition of self-
hood. Cf. K. Brian Söderquist, Irony,in TheOxfordHandbook of Kierkegaard,ed. by John Lip-
pitt and George Pattison, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013,pp. 344364,especially
pp. 348ff.
The PositedSelf: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 25
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
I. Philosophy of Human NatureasKierkegaards
Traditionally, interpreters have been particularlydivided on one central aspect in
Kierkegaardsdefinition of selfhoodnamely,his emphasis thatthe human self
stands in some regulatory or compelling(tvingende)relationship to the exterior-
ity of its existence. As Kierkegaard prefers to frame it,something or some other
establishes or posits the human self (sat ved et Andet).fThat is, for Kierkegaard
the human self is always in relation to acompellingcriterion that is higher or
external to itself, which somehow hinders the infinite freehuman comport-
ment.fWe could saythat Kierkegaardunderstandsselfhood as bound by,or
entangled with, an exterior inescapable affection.f
This peculiardepiction of human nature (or human freedom) has givenrise
to two remarkablydifferent viewpoints. The exclusive-theological readers wish to
understand Kierkegaard (and his pseudonyms) literallyand attribute to this
affective exteriority the innate epistemic epiphanyofbeing the effect of Godscre-
ation, always alreadyinontologicalconnection to the Christian concept of the
divinecreator.That is, the exterior affection is Godsway of reachingout to
us. Naturally, adefiant denial of onescontextual freedom is conclusively a
denial of Godswill, and thereforeconsidered asinful wayoflife.fPhilosophical
readers,onthe other hand, bracket the question about the divine affection in
order to place emphasis on how Kierkegaard depicts human existence(selfhood)
merelyascontextualizedorrelationalawareness.Theyhold that the compelling
exterior affection can at least potentiallybegrounded in other relations thana
divineChristian God,for example, the affectiveimpact of other human beingsor
 SKS 11,129 / SUD,13. See also an earlyarticulationofthis viewpoint in SKS 1, 330ff. / CI,
 SKS 11, 193/SUD,79. See also Merold Westphal, Lévinas and Kierkegaardin Dialogue,Bloo-
mington: Indiana University Press 2008, p. 75.
 See for example the elaboration by the pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis on how entangled
freedom is experienced as anxiety,inSKS 4, 355 / CA,49.
 Iwill refrain fromquotingany particular advocateofthis view,since the view has manyvar-
iations,but instead point to Barrett, KierkegaardasaTheologian,p. 542. See also Lübcke, At
have sat sig selv,’“pp. 15. In addition, one maycompare Gouwenswell-constructed attempt
to show how Kierkegaard is fundamentally a(Christian) religious thinker, cf. David JayGouwens,
KierkegaardasaReligious Thinker,Cambridge:Cambridge University Press 1996.
26 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
sociological-historicalcontexts.fEmphasis, however,isstill placed on Kierke-
gaardsnotion that human selfhood stands in aqualitative relation to an exterior
criterionthat in front of which, life becomes ethicallyevaluated. This means
that the ethical is compellingusfrom an exterior (qualitatively higher)position.f
The latter philosophical approach is an essential element to an interpreta-
tion of Kierkegaard, since it first of all informs us of how Kierkegaard deviates
philosophically(and anthropologically) from the Cartesian tradition Kierkegaard
sawrefined in Kant and Fichte.cIn alate journalentry from 1850 Kierkegaard
Kant held that the human beingwas his own law(autonomy), i.e., bound himself under the
lawhegives himself. In the deeper sense, what this reallypostulates is lawlessness or
experimentation.Itisimpossible for me actuallytobestricterinAthan Iamorwish to
be in B. Theremust be constraint if it is going to be in earnest.IfIamtobind myself
and thereisnobindingforce higher than myself, then where,asthe A, whobinds,can I
find the rigor Idonot possess as B, the one whoistobebound, when, after all, Aand
Bare the same self [?]cf
This quotation echoes Kierkegaardsearlycriticism of both Kant and Fichtefrom
On the ConceptofIrony,revealing thatKierkegaard was earlytophilosophically
sever himself from the Cartesian anthropological view on human selfhood as
mere self-legislative In the same journal note from 1850,Kierke-
gaardcontinues arguing that selfhood is relationallyposited in aconstraining
and compellingrelationship to something different thanitself.
If we pair this observation with Kierkegaardsoutspoken criticism of Hegel,
we maywant to saythat one of Kierkegaardscentral concerns wasexactlyto
clarify whether the human self was actively self-positing as pure rational spon-
taneity (Fichte and Kant), or whether the human self was heteronomouslyor
deterministicallygrounded (Hegel). ForKierkegaard, the answer was somewhere
to be found in between these two viewpoints; Kierkegaard understood human
freedom as always alreadyentangled in aconcept of heteronomyorpositing com-
pelling exteriority. Thus, accordingtoKierkegaard, freedom is simply never free
as such, but better understood as entangled. It is therefore asomewhat new
 See Kosch, Freedom and Reason,pp. 200204. See also Arne Grøn, The Embodied Self.
Reformulating the Existential DifferenceinKierkegaard,Journal of Consciousness Studies,
vol. 11, 2004,pp. 2643,especiallyp.36.
 SKS 11, 193/SUD,79.
 Grøn, Subjektivitet og Selvforhold,pp. 187ff.
 SKS 23,34, NB15:66/KJN 7, 42.
 See SKS 1, 309 / CI,273.
The PositedSelf: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 27
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
and sophisticated attempt to depict human nature as anon-idealistic entity,and
paying respect to the reality of human experience,thatis, the difficulties of
It is from Kierkegaardslater (religious psychological) work from 1849, The
Sickness unto Death,that we find the most explicit and formal analysis of
human selfhood as entangled freedom. The precise and rigid languageKierke-
gaarduses in this work, which was credited to his (so-called) extraordinaryChris-
tian pseudonym Anti-Climacus,cd makes the writingsparticularlysuitable for an
analysis of his concept of selfhood.The work opens with the well-known quar-
rellingdefinition of selfhood: The human self is such aderived, established
relation, arelation thatrelates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates
itself to another.cIn the following Iwill elaborate on this particular quotation
in order to give aconsiderate and fair explication of the meaning that Kierke-
gaardlaysinto this expression.
First,Iwill allow myself to make an initial distinction. The quotation above
is acomposition of three separate aspectsofthe human self. Therefore, Iwill
carveupthedefinition into the following three sections:c(1) Thehuman self
is aderived established relation,(2) arelation that relates itself to itself,and (3)
in relating itself to itself it relates itself to another. Thus, Iwill discuss the three
segmentsinisolation,making them the subtitle of each of threesubsections:
(A)Synthesis,(B) Self-Relation,and (C)Exteriority. The reader should constantly
have in mind, however,thatKierkegaard sees the abovedefinition as anon-
reducible compounded totality.The human self cannot be divided into these
three sub-relations,and neither can we understand selfhood in virtue of one
of these single and separate segments. Instead, selfhood consists of all three
sub-relations as acompleteunity.Inorder to properlyaddress this totality of
selfhood, the paper will conclude with aconjoiningdiscussion of Kierkegaards
notion of selfhood in relation to theism and morality.
 SKS 22, 136,NB11:22/KJN 6, 133.
 SKS 11, 130 / SUD,1314.Notethe Danish original wording: Et saadant deriveret, sat Forhold
er Menneskets Selv,etForhold, der forholder sig til sig selv, og iatforholde sig til sig selv forholder
sig til et andet(SKS 11, 130).
 Forthe sake of simplicity the followingisslightlyaltered compared to the original quotation.
28 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
A. Synthesis:(1) The human self is aderived established
By stating that (1) the human self is aderived established relation,Kierkegaardis
communicating acentral view he holds about the basicfacticity of human
nature. It is also, in its crude outline, most likelytobeaviewhepartlyinherited
from his contemporaries, in particular from the philosophyofbothSchelling and
Hegel.cThe overall idea is thatthe fundamental structure of human nature is
indicatedasrelational, or better,the particularhuman being is arelation (et For-
hold). The more explicit outline Kierkegaardgives is thatthe human being is a
synthesized posited relation between the physical (body) and the psychical
(mind).cIt should be noted, that the view thatthe human being is asynthesized
relation carries recognizable Hegelian terminology. That is, in aHegelian logical
notion the couplingoftwo opposing entities, for example, bodyand mind, will
resultinathird entity,which is the posited relation.cKierkegaardhere follows
Hegel to acertain point,arguing that human nature cannot be reducedtoany of
its single natural kinds, but must necessarilybethought of as atotality (i.e.,
unity); human nature is both rational and embodied.
Now,despite the apparent Hegelian heritage, bothterminologicallyand phil-
osophically, Kierkegaardsarticulation will later conveyanintelligent opposition
to Hegelsunderstanding of the synthesized (i.e., mediated) relation. ForHegel,
the synthesisisthe particularthird element in the relation, which also is seen as
 See Stewart, KierkegaardsRelations to Hegel Reconsidered,p.551.See also Kosch, Freedom
and Reason,p.122.See also David James, The Self-PositingSelf in KierkegaardsTheSickness
unto Death,TheEuropean Legacy:Toward New Paradigms,vol. 16,2011, pp. 587598, especially
p. 590. See also Alastair Hannay, Spirit and the Ideaofthe Self as aReflexive Relation,in The
Sickness unto Death,ed. by Robert Perkins, Macon: Mercer University Press 1987(International
KierkegaardCommentary,vol. 19), pp. 24 38, especiallyp.24. See also Alastair Hannay, Kierke-
gaard and the Variety of Despair,in TheCambridgeCompanion to Kierkegaard,ed. by Alastair
Hannayand GordonMarino,Cambridge:Cambridge University Press 1998, pp. 329348, espe-
 Kierkegaardcommunicates his synthesis-outline abouthuman natureinmanyformatsboth
explicitly, as in TheSickness unto Death,but also implicitlythrough the fictional characters
from, for example, Either/Or. Regardless of the format the idea remains that human facticity
is relational. Thus,asIsee it,the idea of asystematic format dwells foundationallyinhis
wayofthinkingabout the issue of human nature.Especially, in TheConcept of Anxiety from
1844 we see the familiar explicit terminology: Man, then, is asynthesis of psyche and body,
but he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal(SKS 4, 388 / CA,85).
 See GeorgWilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Science of Logic,trans. and ed. by Arnold V. Miller,
Atlantic Highlands:Humanities Press 1969, pp. 82 f. Cf. Stewartsdetailed analysis of the
Hegel-Kierkegaard relation(s) (KierkegaardsRelations to Hegel Reconsidered,pp. 577 ff.)
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 29
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
aresolution of the opposite constituents into ahigher third.cForKierkegaard,
the established relation, the synthesis, is asustainment of the actual collision
between oppositesholding swayofthe actual contradiction: Ahuman being
is asynthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporaland the eternal, of
freedom and necessity, in short,asynthesis. Asynthesis is arelation between
two.dIt follows thatKierkegaardsdeviation from the Hegelian logic is first
of all grounded on existential premises.df Kierkegaard simplydisagreed that
human existenceisabletomediate itself as mere balanced synthesized self-
understanding.dc This opposition plays akey role in understanding whyKierke-
gaardsees human existenceasaproblematic task.
Briefly, we could understand this relationalessence of the/ahuman being as
Kierkegaardsway of articulatingseemingly ordinary aspects of human nature.
The paradoxical constituents of human nature make up the fundamental facts
and limitations about human everydaycomportment.Hesimplyunderlines
the paradoxesofhaving to simultaneouslyposition or relateoneself as botha
conscious (infinite/free)and an embodied being (finite/necessity). Forexample,
we could saythathuman beingsare capable of infinitizing themselvesinthe
sense that one can fantasize or be visionary (i.e., cognitive capabilities). On
the other hand, human nature is justasmuch limited because of the finiteness
of onesphysical, biological nature (i.e., embodiment). In other words, human
nature can be seen as completely free,but at the same time must abide by the
natural necessities thathuman nature implies.dd These two opposites become
relativized and sustained in what Kierkegaard calls spirit (Aand (ånd)), or better,
 See GeorgWilhelm Friedrich Hegel, PhenomenologyofSpirit,trans.byArnold V. Miller,
Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press 1977,pp. 49 f. Notethat HegelinPhenomenologyofSpirit talks
about the relation between consciousness and worldor better,the movefromrationality (Ver-
nunft) to world spirit (Geist)and not explicitlyabout the mediation between bodyand mind.
The logical movement,however,isinprinciple the samewhich Kierkegaardishere both
respondingto, and takingadvantageof.
 SKS 11, 129 / SUD,13.
 See, Hannay, Spirit and the Ideaofthe Self,p. 34.Furthermore, Kierkegaardisespecially
concerned with the differencebetween abstraction (e.g.,purerationality)and the aforemen-
tioned existential paradoxofbeingarelationbetween opposites. This can be inferred from a
rather long passage in Concluding Unscientific Postscript,which is summed up by the pseudo-
nymJohannesClimacusmockingdenial of the Hegelian approach to the existential reality:
Hegelisjustasmuch in the wrongwhen he, forgettingthe abstraction, plunges fromit[sc.
the eternity of abstraction] down in existenceinorder by hook or by crook to cancel the double
aut [sc. the non-contradictory abstraction]. It is impossible to do this in existence, because then
he cancels existencealso(SKS 7, 278/CUP1,305).
 See Grøn, Subjektivitet og Negativitet,pp. 140f.
 See Kosch, Freedom and Reason,pp. 200f.
30 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
what he refers to as human selfhoodthat is, the self sustains this established
paradoxical relation as concrete selfhood. This approach is aclear negation of
the Hegelian logic, which (opposite to Kierkegaard) would have claimed that
the paradoxofthe opposing constituentswould be resolved in thethirdnamely,
selfhood itself is in Hegelianterms understood as aresolving of the paradoxical
composition, into self-determined self-consciousness as truth.d
In summary,and as we will see, selfhood is for Kierkegaard necessarily
associated, or intimatelyconnected, with an inner conflict between the infinite
mind and the finite body. But it is also Kierkegaardsway of illustrating the
potentiality of selfhood, since the third entity in the synthesis is never merely
givenasapositive unity.Inthis sense, human nature is by default seen as aqual-
itative negative entity.The human self,onthe other hand, is the qualitative pos-
itive entity human nature is capable of becoming.dThe emergence, or the
becomingofhuman selfhood, then, is Kierkegaardsway of articulating when
human potentiality is in the process of being realized, which is aconcrete ongo-
ing ascension from the negative starting point (i.e., human nature), to something
positive (i.e., human selfhood as mere self-awareness), to balanced authenticity
(i.e., selfhood as self-understanding). The shift from the negative nature to the
positive selfhood is when the human relation is relatingitself to itself.This brings
us to the second aspect of Kierkegaardsdefinition of selfhood.
B. Self-Relation: (2) arelation that relates itself to itself
In order to fullycapturethe gravity of Kierkegaardsdefinition of selfhood, we
need to set acontextual framework for the following section. Kierkegaardsstate-
ment that the self is (2) arelation that relates itself to itself,isessentiallyachal-
lengetothe underlying Cartesian philosophy, which dominatedthe continental
Enlightenment and motivated the German idealistic movement.ByCartesian, I
particularlyrefer to the transcendental philosophy, which came out of Kant
and wasfurther developed viathe idealismofespeciallyFichte(and appropriated
by the romantics, for example, Schlegel, Solgerand Tieck). The fundamental dif-
ferencebetween the Cartesian outline and Kierkegaardsview is that Kierkegaard
opposes the idea thatwecan reduce human selfhood and self-understanding to
 See Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit,p.110.See also JonStewart, TheUnity of HegelsPhenom-
enology of Spirit: ASystematic Interpretation,Evanston:Northwestern University Press 2000,
pp. 125f.
 See Poul Lübcke, Selvets Ontologi hos Kierkegaard,Kierkegaardiana,vol. 13,1984,pp. 50
62,especiallyp.52. See also Davenport, Selfhood and Spirit,’” pp. 230233.
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 31
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
the Kantian and Fichtean idea of mere (spontaneous)rationality.The idea of the
self as eo ipso rationalitywas in the Cartesian outline understood more precisely
as the ability to act under onesinnateself-posited laws. That is, human agency,
and thereby freedom, was described as autonomy.d
This is not equivalent to saying that Kierkegaard disregards rationality.
AccordingtoKierkegaard, the human mind has the ability to realize and relate
to its own relationor to be aware of itself as relational. As Kierkegaard prefers
to articulate it (although it is not necessarilyinformative):
In the relation between the two [psychical and physical] the relation is the thirdasaneg-
ative unity,and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under
the qualification of the psychical [Sjel,i.e., bevidsthed]the relation between the physical
and the psychical is arelation. If, however,the relation relates itself to itself, this relation
becomes the positive third, and this is the self.d
Kierkegaard is here articulatingthe aforementioned qualitative shift from mere
human nature into realized human selfhoodthatis, when the relation (qua con-
sciousnessorrationality) becomes an issue to itself.
Since the Cartesian outline does not give arelational depiction of human
selfhood (qua res cogitans), Kierkegaards(later)concern never became or was
an issue for Kant or Fichte. There is, so to speak, no relational issue revealed
for the Cartesian egoonlythe thinkinghuman self, and later with Kant and
Fichte, the dialectic of reason and understanding must essentiallybewhat is
meant by selfhood.dThus, for Kierkegaard, the qualitative peculiarity of self-
hood is signified as an experience of onesown relation of embodiment and con-
sciousnessthatis, the human being becomes aself when it experiences itself,
or better,when the relation relates itself to itself, which essentiallyisthe initial
and rudimentary self-awareness.dThis givesrise to anumber of fundamental
existential issues, of which Ishall limit myself to the following two:
 Autonomyisfrom the Greek word ατόνο�ος (auto-nomos), ατο meaning the self and νό�ος
meaning law. That is, actingunder self-legislated laws (cf. ImmanuelKant, Groundworkofthe
Metaphysics of Morals,ed. and trans.byMary Gregor, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press
2000,pp. 40f.). Asimilar scheme is followed by Fichte with the term Selbständigkeit or self-
sufficiency(cf. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Introductiontothe Wissenschaftslehre,ed. and trans.
by Daniel Breazeale, Indianapolis:Hackett PublishingCompany1994,p.19and p. 39).
 SKS 11, 129 / SUD,13.
 Kant discusses this notion in quiteelaborate detail in his first Critique;see especiallyImma-
nuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason,trans. and ed. by Paul Guyerand Allen W. Wood, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press 1998, B150-B159, pp. 256260.
 See Grøn, Subjektivitet og Negativitet,pp. 5759.
32 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
The first issue is that in the self-relation one necessarilymeets oneself when
one is aware of oneselfthatis, thereisalways aspecific entity that one relates
to in the self-relation. Forexample, when Ithink about myself, Irealize thatthe
perceivedI(the relation of bodyand mind) becomesanissue to myself. Or stated
differently, when Ithink about myself, Iamboththe one Ithink about and the
one that is thinking about myself. It is apeculiardouble signification Kierke-
gaardisaiming at: The self is arelation, and then again that relation is aself-
relation. Thus, there is alreadyinthe self-relation an inbuilt notion of trying
to obtain self-understanding,which is central to the entire bundle of psycholog-
ical states Kierkegaard discusses in his writings, for example, anxiety,despair,
melancholy,sorrow,joy,love, etc. That is, the double signification of the self
as aself-relation is the possibility for onesbeing to be an issue to oneself
hence, selfhood is revealed as aproblematic task.
The second issue is atime-related issue. That is, selfhood is self-awareness
in timethe self is somehow colliding with itself in elapsingtime, meaningthat
self-understanding is an ongoing task. Theaforementioned double signification
is thereforeseen as aconstant ongoing ruptureofonesself-understanding.
There is no such thing as agiven, final or eternal comprehension of oneself.f
The idea that selfhood is set or positedasatime-related issue, is also an ongoing
topic in Kierkegaardsearlier TheConcept of Anxiety,whereKierkegaard depicts
the difficulty of holding on to oneself in aseemingly paradoxical existence.cThe
problem for Kierkegaard is, that self-understanding is atask that is onlypoten-
tiallybound for completion, but more likelytoconclude in existential failure.
The latter idea of failing to reach the status of authentic self-understanding is
the coretopic of TheSickness unto Deathnamely, to fail to understand oneself
is to be in despair (Fortvivlelse).dKierkegaardsinference, then, is thatselfhood,
as aself-relation, is understood as an ongoing misrelation (Misforhold)ineither a
 Comparethis to Grøn: Selvet er altså selvforhold, velatmærke ikke forholdet, men det at for-
holdet forholder sig til sig selv. Bestemmelsen er dobbelt: Mennesket er et selv,som igen er det at
forholde sig til sig selv(Grøn, Subjektivitet og Selvforhold,p. 191).
 See Grøn, Subjektivitet og Negativitet,p.173 f.
 See Arne Grøn, Time and History,in TheOxford Handbook of Kierkegaard,ed. by John Lip-
pitt and George Pattison, Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press 2013,pp. 273291, especiallyp.279.
 Notethe Danish etymological precision that the word fortvivlelse encapsulates. The word for-
tvivlelse is composed of twowords, for and tvivlthat is, for-tvivl. The Danish word tvivle means
in English to doubt (at tvivle). When one places the word(or prefix) for in front of tvivl,it
becomes an intensification of doubt (tvivl). Despair (fortvivlelse), then, is an intensified doubt
about oneselfor better,anuncertainty,confusion or bewilderment about onesentirerelation.
Personally, Iprefer the English translation or description of fortvivlelse as innate intensified per-
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 33
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
strongoraweak sensehowever,always in some sense amisrelation, because of
the ongoing (time-related) rupture of onesself-understanding.
Let us take acloser look at what Kierkegaard means by the idea that the self
is a misrelation. As mentioned, the biggerpsychological issue at stake in The
Sickness unto Death is the notion of despair,which is aqualitative psychological
signification of experiencing oneself as amisrelationor better,experiencing the
dizzying and paradoxical aspect of onesself-relation.Itshould be mentioned
(and appreciated) that Kierkegaardsintention with TheSickness unto Death
was to give asomewhat exhaustive depiction of the psychologyand phenomen-
ologybehind the concept of despair.Infact, the entire book, except the first few
pages, is devoted to this agenda. Iwill not,however,moveinto adeep analysis
of despair,but merelyacknowledge that it plays acrucial role in understanding
Kierkegaardsoverall idea of selfhood and morality.
Furthermore, and this is something that is often overlooked, despair is not a
consequenceofhis theoretical understanding of the self as relational; it is rather
the other wayaround. Kierkegaardsdefinition of selfhood is aresultofhis phe-
nomenological and psychological depiction of despair (of course, among other
psychological issues). Forexample, as Kierkegaard notices,animalsdonot
have the potential or capability to despair; thereforehuman selfhood must nec-
essarilybeconstrued in adifferent way, since despair is an essential aspect of
human comportment and apperception. Thus, despair functions as Kierke-
gaardsempirical phenomenon, which informs us on the genealogyofthe
human self. Oneistempted to saythatthis is almostascientific approach of let-
ting the phenomena dictate onestheoretical depiction.
Despair is for Kierkegaard an intensification of the misrelation that makes
up the human self:
Despair is the misrelation in the relation of asynthesis that relates itself to itself. But the
synthesis is not the misrelation; it is merely the possibility,orinthe synthesislies the pos-
sibility of misrelation. If the synthesis werethe misrelation, then despair would not exist at
all, then despair would be somethingthat lies in human natureassuch.
 SKS 11, 132134 / SUD,1617.Again, this stands in contrast to the Hegelian notion of self-
hood as apassive mediation or aresolvingofthe paradoxical constituents of onesbeing(Han-
nay, Kierkegaardand the Variety of Despair,pp. 26f.), where Kierkegaardisarticulatingself-
hood as an ongoingactive process of becoming aself.
 SKS 11, 131 / SUD,15.
 SKS 11, 13132 / SUD,1516.
34 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
We see here again that despair reveals itself as an empirical and psychological
proof of the relationalcharacteristic of human selfhood. The self-relatingrela-
tionselfhood as aself-relationis essentiallyanexperience of always already
posited complexity as perplexity,given that the self thatweare aware of is
never fullygrasped or understood. Selfhood is thatwhich can never be fullysyn-
thesized and thereby never completelymeaningful. Theself emergesnot as self-
understanding in concreto,but as amundane and illusive self-relational aware-
In summary,the subjective understanding of oneself will initiallybecompre-
hendedasanexistential task of acquiringself-understanding, which is the qual-
itative shift of the becoming of oneself. Specifically, this means that the human
self by default experiences itself as an imbalance, or misrelation, due to the per-
plexity of the initial self-experience.The existential task, then, is to achievea
balance (Ligevægt), which conclusivelyisaself-relational understandingof
being posited as arelation (between bodyand mind). Note again that Kierke-
gaardsdefinition deviates fundamentallyfrom the Cartesian outline.The
human self is not understood as this stable ground, from whereself-understand-
ing can freelyblossom. There is initiallyacompletelack of self-containment,in
the sense that the self-relation is somehow understood as asurplusasurplus
that initiallyreveals itself as meek awareness,and thatitself is the self-relation.
So far,one criticism could appear obvious. The initial definition of human
selfhood as an existential task maynot revealany substantial complexity to
some readers. Surely, one could ask: How difficult can it be to understand one-
self?Well, this is so far, in accordance to our initial definition,the wrongques-
tions to ask, since we are still lacking the third aspect Kierkegaard ascribes to
human selfhood. This third segment,i.e., relating itself to another,isseen as a
further complication of Kierkegaardsdefinition of selfhood, and also the seg-
ment thathas givenrise to confusion in the secondary literature.Itake the fol-
lowing section to be crucial to the overall statement of the present paper,which
is whyIshall elaborate in more detail on this issue.
C. Exteriority: (3) in relating itself to itself it relates itself to
The third and last description of the compositional character of human selfhood
is acharacterization of selfhood as arelation to exterior dependency.That is,
 See Grøn, Subjektivitet og Selvforhold,pp. 188f.
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 35
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
Kierkegaard wants to emphasize that human selfhood can never be fulfilledas
self-understanding unless one accepts that one is always alreadyinsome expe-
rience of dependency to something exterior to oneself. Or to put it in Kierke-
gaardsterminology,the self is experiencing itself as being posited by something
other than itself, which the self cannot (existentially)abstract itself from. The
task of becomingisthereforefurther complicated by the exteriority of ones
being. It should here be noted that Kierkegaardagain takes this further compli-
cation as aconsequenceofthe genealogyofdespair.That is, the form of despair
Kierkegaard calls the despair of defiance,In despair to willtobeoneself,
would onlybepossibleifthe human self stands in relation to apositing exteri-
ority,which the self, in despair,attempts to sever itself from. If the self did not
stand in apositedrelation to aconcept of exteriority, despair of defiance would
simplynot arise as apsychological issue. Therefore, selfhood must be under-
stood first as arelation (between bodyand mind) thatrelates to its own relation,
i.e., mundane self-awareness, but also understood as standing in relation to
onesexteriority,i.e., relatingto(or comporting) oneself as self-relation.
So far,the reader mayhavenoticed that Ihavebeen using the words estab-
lished and posited in order to signify selfhood as asomewhat given paradoxical
relation. As Kierkegaardputs it: The human self is an established relation.f
However,interchangingthe words posited and established is essentiallyanincor-
rect usageofKierkegaardsterminology.The reason whyIhighlight this issue is
that this switch in terminologyisfound in several of the English translations
although,Kierkegaard always use the same Danishword(namely,sat). The ety-
mological detail between posited and established mayappear to be of minor triv-
ial relevance, but as Iwill show in the following it reveals an important interpre-
tative nuance.c
If we rewrite the first segment (1) the human self is aderived established
relation,to(1) the human self is aderived posited relation,weshould be able
 See Lübcke, At have sat sig selv,’“p. 3. See also Marius Mjaaland, Alterität und Textur in
Kierkegaards Krankheit zumTode,Neue Zeitschrift rSystematische Theologieund Religionsphi-
losophie,vol. 47,2005,pp. 5880,especiallypp. 62 ff.
 SKS 11, 130,181187/SUD,14, 6774.
 SKS 11, 182/SUD,68.
 SKS 11, 129 / SUD,13.
 Iwill later arguebrieflythat thereisaconnection between Kierkegaardschoice of the word
sat and the equivalent in Hegelian terminology.SinceItakeAlastair Hannaytobeone of the
respected authorities on the Hegel-Kierkegaardconnection, Iwonder whyhehas made the
same translation mistake, namely, translating the Danish word sat with the English word estab-
lished in his 1989 translation of TheSickness unto Death. See Søren Kierkegaard, TheSickness
unto Death,ed. and trans. by Alastair Hannay, London: Penguin Classics 1989,p.43.
36 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
to anticipate what Kierkegaard is reallytrying to articulate here.dKierkegaards
idea is that the self is aposited entity in the sense thatthe self is derivatively put
in place by its naturalconstituents (bodyand mind). The self is posited as a
givenrelation, which one conclusively experiencesasaninherent facticity of
onesselfhood. Thus, it would be wrong to saythatthe relation is somehow
established in the waythat it is ontologicallycreated,since this would not
leave room for an imbalanceormisrelation. One can only misrelate to oneself
if onesrelation is posited in a weaker sense,different than being firmly estab-
lished or constituted.
In fact,Kierkegaard illustratesthe differencebetween established and posit-
ed,byimplicitlyshowing thatafirmly established existenceisanexistential
impossibility,since the self has the possibilitytoself-posit.The self, Kierkegaard
holds, can experience itself as away of positing itselfthat is, the self can expe-
rience that there is apossibilitytochoose onesown character as afree self-
positing being.Indeed, Kierkegaard keeps this option open in his analysis:
Such relation that relates itself to itself, aself, must either have established
[posited]itself or have been established [posited]byanother. However,Kierke-
gaardlater deniesthatthere can be aself-reliant pure self-positing self, qua the
psychological status of despair as defiance. That is, even if we do try to self-posit,
we will always be aware of beinginrelation to some other exterior and compel-
ling (positing) reality.Thus, we can indeedself-posit,but onlybyalso being in
This maybedemonstrated better by example. Imagine apresident who can
surelydepict and posithimself outwardlyasacaring,responsible and an hon-
orable politician, despite the fact that he has perhaps been responsible for
social-political catastrophes.Aperson like this is somehow claiming to have
the power over his self-understandingthat is, he is somehow self-positinghis
own existential quality,regardless of the actual (exterior) reality.Conclusively,
Kierkegaard deniesself-positing as an ontological category,but instead makes
room for it within the domain of despair.Such apresident,then, must be in
despair.That is, accordingtoKierkegaard, one can onlyarbitrarilyclaim to be
self-positing, but one cannot ontologicallyrealize it,since this existential way
of self-positingessentiallyisself-deception. Thus, we would simply be wrong
 Comparethis to George Pattisonsuse of the English terminology,where Iassume he delib-
eratelyalters the translation from established to posited (George Pattison, “‘BeforeGodas a
Regulative Concept,Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook,1997, pp. 70 84,herep.73).
 SKS 11, 129 / SUD,13.
 Cf. SKS 11, 184 / SUD,69; the Danish idiom Kierkegaarduses is particularlyinteresting: Det
fortvivlede Selvbyggeraltsaa bestandigt kun Luftcasteller.
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 37
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
in saying thatthe self is established. The notion Kierkegaard is aiming at is an
existential experience of being posited as arelation, but also positedinrelation
to an exterior reality.Again, the articulation is double.
As Ishall demonstrate, the third segment of the definition of selfhood, (3) in
relating itself to itself it relates itself to another,isKierkegaardsway of articulat-
ing this problemnamely, that (authentic)self-posited self-understanding is an
existential impossibility.InKierkegaardsframework, the self is not justpositing
itself in relation to, and on the conditions of, its owninwardness as undisturbed
creative spontaneity.Kierkegaard argues that there is asense in which the
human self is being posited by another outward or external forcethat is, it is
entangled in some compelling(heteronomous) concept of exteriority.
Kierkegaardspremise is thatahuman self is always alreadyaware of its
relation to exteriority.Inother words, the self-relation is simultaneouslyalsoa
relation to an external power (Magt)that somehow is an inescapable part of
being self-aware.Conclusively, this power will heteronomouslyaffect ones
self-understanding (but not establish or dictate it). Now,itiswell known that
Kierkegaardspseudonymfrom TheSickness unto Death,Anti-Climacus, ascribes
this experience of exteriority to the religious epiphanyofbeing before an omnip-
otent Christian God, or that this epiphanyatleast has the structure of an expe-
rience of being before some conception of aGod. However,asIhave briefly
argued, this aspect of being posited by exteriority is aconsequential view of
the psychological facts revealedbythe structure of despair.Itisthe structure
of selfhood that makes room for despair as apsychological issue. If humans
werenot disposed to be in despair (of defiance), this epiphanyofexteriority
would not be an existential issue.
This meansthat the psychologyitself is far from grounded on areligious
premise. It is the other wayaroundnamely, the philosophyofselfhood can
lead to areligious conclusion, in order to give meaningtoafoundational psy-
chological phenomenon. Therefore, acentral argument for the present paper is
to bracket Anti-Climacuscandid assumption that the exteriority is exclusively
explainedbythe Christian notion of God. This is an important interpretative dis-
tinction, since the third segment,i.e., exteriority,later will function as the moral
link in Kierkegaardsphilosophy. Thus, Iambasicallysuggesting that we should
refuse to understand Kierkegaardsethics exclusively as Christianity.
In order to build astronger argument,Iwill now return to the translation
fallacy mentioned earliernamely, the translation of the Danishword sat,and
 Cf. SKS 11,130 / SUD,14.
 Cf. SKS 11,191 / SUD,77. See also Pattison, “‘BeforeGodas aRegulative Concept.
38 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
the difference between established and posited. Iwill try to illustrate whyitmay
have been that asizeable part of the (Anglo-American or English) exclusive-theo-
logical readingofKierkegaardsthird segment of selfhood rests on the idea of
selfhood being established,and not merely posited. Igrant that it is open to dis-
cussion whether or not we are dealingwith a, strictlyspeaking, incorrect trans-
lation,orwhether we amerelydealing with adeviation of contextual meaning
between the words established and posited. However,itisundeniable that the
translation itself givesrise to terminological and contextual confusion. To people
who think thatthe translation differenceisminor,one could point to afunny
observation, that this translation confusion is always avoided in biblical English
writings. We have yettosee abiblical translation thatsaysthat God posited the
world. Here, established,constituted and (preferably)created are the proper
wordingsin, for example, the Old or the New Testament.
One of the strongerarguments for emphasizing the differencebetween
established and posited would be that Kierkegaard most likelyborrowed the con-
cept sat (posited), and its technicalusageand meaning,from Hegelian philoso-
phyand terminologynamely, Hegelsconcept of positedness (Gesetztheit or
Gesetz). However,itwould be more appropriate to take acloser look at the con-
text whereKierkegaardactuallyuses the concept sat,and also take alook at the
particularetymological meaning of the Danishword sat,inorder to build abet-
ter understanding of whythe aforementioned passageinTheSickness unto Death
is subject to such great confusion.
The first thing we want to recognize is that TheSickness unto Death is not the
onlyplace where Kierkegaard dwells on the idea that the human self is posited
(sat). Actually, the notion of something being posited in the self (values, feelings,
moods, etc.) is atopic Kierkegaardconstantlyreturns to.However,inTheCon-
cept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard makes use of the term sat in an (almost) identical
context as in TheSickness unto Death. In the English (KW)edition of TheConcept
of Anxiety the Danish word sat is correctlytranslated with the English word pos-
 See, e.g., Jer51:15: It is He who made the earth by His power, Who established the world by
His wisdom, And by His understandingHestretched out the heavens(myemphasis).
 Aview underlined by Hannay: But Anti-Climacussdefinitionofthe self as arelation that
relates itself to itselfis neither empty parodynor apretentiouslydecked out truism [on Hegel].
It stateselegantly, and Ibelieveaccurately, acrucial principle of Kierkegaardsthoughtonly,
however,tothe appropriatelyprogrammed reader.Bythis Imean areaderfamiliar with the tra-
dition from which Kierkegaardsterms derive their connotations:the Hegelian tradition.(Han-
nay, Spirit and the Ideaofthe Self,p. 24). The philosophical affiliation with Hegelisoften
overlooked, duetothe overall depiction of Kierkegaard as nothingbut afierce critical opponent
to everythingHegel wrote and did both as aphilosopher and person (cf. Stewart, Kierkegaards
Relations to Hegel Reconsidered,pp. 2 13).
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 39
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
ited. However,the sameeditorial committee simultaneouslyaccepts adifferent
translation in TheSickness unto Death,wherethe Danishword sat unexpectedly
appears as the English word established. It maybetrue, however,that TheSick-
ness unto Death has aslightlyheavier religious connotation than the earlier The
ConceptofAnxiety. This mayexplain whythe translators decided to make use of
adifferent translation in order to accentuatethe religious differences. Surely,as
alreadymentioned, the word establish has strongerreligious connotations than
the word posited. One can onlyspeculate how the Anglo-Americanreception of
TheSickness unto Death would have developed, had the word established been
correctlytranslated with the world posited. This paper,however,isnoplace
for such speculative advance.
Let us now have alookatthe etymologyand usageofthe word sat in the
Danishlanguage, in order to better represent Kierkegaardsintended meaning.
The Danishword sat is praeteritum (or past tense) of the verb (at)sætte
which literallymeans to place,for example, to place somethingsomewhere.f
One peculiar aspect,which Ibelieveisespeciallyrelevant for the Danish
usageiswhen sat serves to describeaparticular aspect of asituation, or aper-
sonsrelation to acertain event.Inthese cases, sat becomes apeculiarway of
speakingalmost figuratively. Ademonstration of this usage could be when one
gets married (however,note thatessentiallyall situations and events, which
one is consciouslyaware of, have aspects of being posited (sat)). Herethe mar-
ried person experiences the notion of being satmeaning thatone is arrested
and compelled by the exteriority in his/her particularsocial position, which mar-
riageimplies, for example, having apartner, living up to matrimonialobliga-
tions, the legal difference, or the social status of marriage. Being sat,for exam-
ple, by marriage, merelymeans that one necessarilyhas to relate oneself to the
exteriority thatmarriageimplies. One could saythatthe exterior affective reality
is somewhat inescapableit somehow entangles youinacompellingway.This is
how marriagereveals itself as an affective matter of self-relationit posits us in a
peculiarcontextualized way.
The reason whywecannot translate the Danishword sat with the English
word established is simplybecause we are not talking about adominating crea-
tional process. Rather,the word sat is understood as something thatisexternally
compelling, something that affects us; it essentiallyhinders the ability to expe-
rience oneself as freelyself-positing.This does not implythat one cannot try to
 In Danish: kort tillægsform or datids tillægsform.
 It can also mean to suggest or to pitch,which by analogy is closer to the Latin word posito or
positum,inwhich the English word posit is rooted.
40 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
escape the notion of being sat. In praxis one can indeeddenythe contextual
affectionfor example, one can getadivorceand annul onesmarriage,but
the situation still leavesatrace regardless.That is, when one divorces, one is
thereafter posited in anew contextnamely, being divorced (and all the exterior
contextual affections that follow from this). Therefore, sat should not be under-
stood in the sense that one is being firmlyorontologically established (or creat-
ed), but rather,that onesself-understanding is being forcefullyaffected, limited
and contextualized from amultitude of exterior connections.These adjectives
are simplyaninescapable part of our self-relational understanding;actually
when we think about it,itturnsout to be amundane aspect of human subjec-
What Kierkegaard is aiming at,then, is something qualitatively different
from being established. Instead, it is an explanation of the self in association
with existential affection and limitation. Such arelation calls for onesearnest
attention. One can easilyignore the experienced forceofbeing sat,but it will,
nevertheless, still appear as anon-escapable relation. The English word posited
is in my view the best translation we have to signify this (figurative)meaning in
Let us return to apassageinTheSickness unto Death,wherethis wording
becomes relevant: Such arelation thatrelates itself to itself, aself, must either
have established [sat]itself or have been established [sat]byanother [et
Andet].dFormallyspeaking,Kierkegaardkeepsopen the opportunity that
onesselfhood can either be sat (posited)byoneself, or by another: It must
be, Kierkegaardholds, that either we can posit our ownselfhood entirely, or
else something is positing it alongside with us. Now,itisquite explicit from
the rest of the book that Kierkegaardaccentuates the latter notion. This leads
us to the other perspectivenamely, if some other also posits us, then it follows
that human existencehas in it certain qualitative,inescapable affections, which
 Although the word posited is, to the best of my knowledge,not strictlyapplied in this sense
in the English language,itstill serves the purpose of explainingthat onesself-relation is being
put (forward)intoaqualitatively different relation, different from amereself-relation deprived
from externality (in the Kantian or Fichtean manner).
 SKS 11, 129 / SUD,13.
 Notethat Kierkegaardisnot underlining the formal logical outcome of the sentencesince
this would implythat it is an either/or,that either we posit ourselvesentirely, or we areposited
entirelybythis other.The word or should not be understood as alogicaldisjunction, since
Kierkegaardlater changesthe disjunction to aconjunction,soselfhood is apeculiar and para-
doxical experienceofboth self-positing and beingposited at the same time (one could easily
claim that this would be illogical, which IbelieveKierkegaardwould have been fullysatisfied
The PositedSelf: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 41
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
ultimatelyare beyond human deliberation and controland essentiallyincom-
prehensible. The latter depiction is Kierkegaardsview.Inother words, according
to Kierkegaard, human self-relation must alsobeanembracing of the positing
external conditions that are forced upon onesexistence. Authentic self-under-
standing,then, involves compliancetothe exteriority one is positedby. Accord-
ing to Kierkegaard, this is afactual aspect of human nature. Whether or not we
agree with Kierkegaard (and Anti-Climacus)thatthis is further aGod-relation is
less important. The crucial part is to recognize thatselfhood entails an exterior
compulsion as afoundation of its essence.
II. Concluding RemarksonSelfhood,Theism,
So far Ihaveattempted to illustrate the non-theistic foundation, which Ibelieve
Kierkegaard is revealing with his philosophyofhuman nature (selfhood). It is
quite appealing to arguethatthe Christian idea of adivinecreator plays no
role in Kierkegaardsphilosophy. In otherwords, the issue that givesrise to
the existential problems, which Kierkegaardisprimarilyengaged with, is dis-
closed through aphilosophical approach. Strictlyspeaking, the theisticpart of
Kierkegaardssystem does not provide anysubstantial argumentative work. We
can indeedmake sense of Kierkegaardsphilosophicalproject without invoking
anyChristian overtonesactually, the theory is perfectlyunderstandable if we
fullybracket (or remove) the theism suggested by KierkegaardsAnti-Climacus.
The structural definitionofhuman selfhood explicated here is in alarger
Kierkegaardian context,ofcourse, still somewhat simplified. But the goal of
the present paper is merelytoillustrate that Kierkegaardsstructural foundation
is non-theistic. In summary,the foundational premise is that human selfhood is
aself-relation. This is acrucial aspect,since it is Kierkegaardsway of articulat-
ing the complexity and dis-unification (i.e., misrelation) that selfhood always
alreadyrepresents. The self emergesasmundaneself-awarenessthatis, aware-
ness as conscious of its embodied existence. Furthermore, qua onescognitive
abilities,one is bound to exteriorize, project,orself-relate oneself in time
meaning that onesexistenceconstantlybecomes arenewed issue to oneself.
Selfhood as self-awareness reveals itself as atask of gainingself-understanding,
to become abalanced or authentic self, as opposed to the intensified misrelation
of despair as intensified perplexity about oneslife.
 Cf. Grøn, The EmbodiedSelf,pp. 27f.
42 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
Selfhood as authentic self-understanding is further complicated by the
actual compellingaffection of the exterior context one is receptive to. Such a
relation that relates itself to itself, and in relating itself to itself also relates to
anothersuch arelation, Kierkegaard claims, is the human self. The self can
onlyexperience itself as existing in this world, bothasself-awareness and in
relation to the positing exteriority.Inother words, the Cartesian infinite free
self-positingself-understanding is an existential impossibility.
Kierkegaardsconceptsoftheism and morality are, from an exegetical per-
spective,undeniably interconnected. However,asIhave alluded throughout
the paper and explicitlyargued in the last section, Kierkegaardstheism (Chris-
tianity) does not necessarilyfollow from the philosophical premises he presents.
That is, the theism Kierkegaard seems to be introducing is better understood as a
solution to the existential problem of becomingaself. Without the concept of
faith (Tro), which is here understood as the religious life-comportment (or atti-
tude), the human self is bound for an existenceindespair.Faith becomes Kierke-
gaardsantidote, or existential armament (so to speak), which can finally getrid
of despair,oratleast keep despair an arms-length away,byhaving the attitude
of apassionate believer.Faith is thereforejust as much an attitude towardones
existence, as it is aChristian orthodoxconcept.Itisawayofrealizingand
accepting that certain aspectsofoneslife are beyond freedombeyond compre-
hension. Selfhood, therefore, can onlybefullyactualized through arealization
of conducting oneslife through faith: The opposite to being in despair is to
have faith.
Ibelievethat the mistranslation in TheSickness unto Death,which Idis-
cussed in the last section, exemplifies an overlyignored aspect in Kierkegaards
theism. Kierkegaard (or Anti-Climacus) is not articulating an ontologically estab-
lished relation between God and human being.Instead, Kierkegaard is pointing
to apeculiar feature of human naturenamely,that we stand in qualitative
relation to the exteriority of our worldlyexistence. Human selfhood is aposited
relation, both inwardlyand outwardly. The English mistranslation illustrates why
the exclusive-theological reading is simply linguisticallyand conceptuallyincor-
rect.IfKierkegaardthought thatselfhood was something exclusively-theologically
constituted, he would have used amore rigorous terminology. But then again, if
God ontologicallyestablishes human selfhood, then despair would hardly
become an issue. The possibilityofdespair is exactlytobeaposited relation,
opposite to acreated established relation.
 SKS 11, 163/SUD,49.
The Posited Self: The Non-Theistic Foundation in KierkegaardsWritings 43
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
The largerportrait Kierkegaard is setting is not astory about religious dog-
matism. Quite the contrary,itisbetter understood as anon-theistic philosophical
insight.Asnoted earlier,Kierkegaardsreligion is merelyasolution to an existen-
tial problem he uncovers qua aprofound philosophicalanalysis.Thus, the differ-
ent aspectswefind with his conceptsoftheism and moralityare derivedfrom his
view that human existenceisexteriorizedin other words, human selfhood is
compelled. Morality, then, reveals itself as acompellingdemand to live accord-
ingly.The motivation for amoral life does not come from within (for example, as
Kantian rationality), but instead gets positedexternallytooneself.
Moral values are onlyappreciated properlywhen one comports oneself
religiously,which essentiallymeans that one submits oneself to the compelling
exteriority.Itis, as Kierkegaard states in Either/Or: Either the sadness of the
tragic or the profound sorrow and profound joy of religion. Onlythrough a
religious life-attitude do we come to enjoythe value of life in its highestpotency.
And that,Kierkegaard claims, is the profundity of authentic selfhood as self-
understanding.The morallife, then, is the salvation of the existential problem
selfhood implies.
 SKS 2, 146/EO1,146.
44 Rasmus Rosenberg Larsen
Authenticated | author's copy
Download Date | 8/5/15 10:57 AM
The Sickness unto Death (1849) is commonly regarded as one of Kierkegaard's most important works – but also as one of his most difficult texts to understand. It is a meditation on Christian existentialist themes including sin, despair, religious faith and its redemptive power, and the relation and difference between physical and spiritual death. This volume of new essays guides readers through the philosophical and theological significance of the work, while clarifying the complicated ideas that Kierkegaard develops. Some of the essays focus closely on particular themes, others attempt to elucidate the text as a whole, and yet others examine it in relation to other philosophical views. Bringing together these diverse approaches, the volume offers a comprehensive understanding of this pivotal work. It will be of interest to those studying Kierkegaard as well as existentialism, religious philosophy, and moral psychology.
The meaning of Kierkegaard’s concept of self-becoming is not obvious and it fundamentally depends on how one approaches his body of work and how one understands his vocation and creative impulse as a philosopher. There is strong evidence for a non-teleological reading of him, according to which his creative impulse is to be found in his category of repetition. However, this requires a refutation of the reliability of his autobiographical narrative from 1848. An explanation of Kierkegaard’s conception of self-becoming requires an analysis of his notion of the self, as well as his notion of the process of becoming. Language acquisition marks the beginning of selfhood. The self can be viewed in context of a struggle between the first self-element and the deeper one, which can be compared to the tension between the ego and the superego in the structural model of Freud. The self can also be viewed in a way in which one’s self-determining agency constitutes and upholds a synthesis between sets of opposites, where psychical factors are on one side and the physical factors are on the other side. The agency gradually actualises possibilities and makes ideals concrete, by the so called movements of infinitude and finitude, in which an imagined possibility is chosen and brought in line with necessity. The self is forged through the subjective repetition involved in the process, both its inwardness and its character. The process of becoming is a process of change, where new qualities come into existence through freedom, in contrast to qualities that merely unfold in an organic or logical way. An anxiety and pathos motivate the task of becoming. The framework of the existence-spheres is a venue of becoming, but it should not be understood as a teleological system of subjectivity. An existence-sphere is a horizon of meaning, linked to the struggle between the self-elements. They can be compared to a form of life, and the transitions between them can be compared to an aspect-dawning. In addition to the everyday repetition involved in actualisation of possibilities, there is a transformative repetition which signifies an advancement of the self-determining agency and which can be associated with an openness to the abyssal ground of freedom. Moreover, the paradigm of repetition is aligned with the concept of self-becoming, including a time-consciousness where the focus is on the present while the orientation is towards the future, pressing forward, in contrast to the mentality of recollection. This time-consciousness makes one properly attuned to temporal existence and is part of the process of becoming in its thick sense. Self-becoming terminates in death. Immortality is to be understood as judgment and to think about death in earnest generates the time-consciousness of repetition.
This article argues for the notion of the embodied self in reformulating insights in Kierkegaard that point to the existential difference in being embodied. The main arguments are: 1. Kierkegaard uses a Hegelian model: the human mind exteriorizes itself, in history and language, in actions and speech. Human being is being (out) there. 2. This does not make the notions of self and interiority obsolete. On the contrary, in order to understand human exteriority, we need to re-define what a human self is. 3. The crucial point in this re- definition is that self is to be understood as self-relation. Self is to relate oneself to others and to a world in between, and, in these relations, to relate to oneself. 4. Human consciousness is embodied in being embedded in a social, historical and cultural context. A human being relates to itself as being corporeally and temporally determined. 5. Human embodiment, with its intrinsic history, is a matter of concern: how humans take themselves in being embodied. In this there is a critical difference between being present and not being present. Our embodied existence is to be taken over or to be appropriated by ourselves as embodied beings.
In response to the claim that Kierkegaard's highly compressed definition of the self, given near the beginning of The Sickness unto Death, should be understood in Hegelian terms, I show that it can be better understood in terms of an earlier development in the history of German idealism, namely, Fichte's theory of self-consciousness. The notion that the self “posits” itself found in this theory will be used to explain Kierkegaard's definition of the self, including his rejection of the idea that the self posits itself absolutely. I go on to show how this conception of the self relates to certain features of the concept of despair described in The Sickness unto Death. This in turn allows me to indicate some implications of this conception of the self in relation to Kierkegaard's attitude towards the social and political forces shaping the modern world.