Kierkegaard on Ideality and Anxiety

by John Holbo on June 16, 2016

I’m teaching Kierkegaard next semester, so I’m rereading The Concept of Anxiety – which, to be honest, has never really done it for me. As major Kierkegaard texts go. (But I have been known to quote from it, at need.) Anyway, two quotes today for my uncommon book. File under ‘ought implies can: pro and con’:

The more ideal ethics is, the better. It must not permit itself to be distracted by the babble that it is useless to require the impossible. For even to listen to such talk is unethical and is something for which ethics has neither time nor opportunity. Ethics will have nothing to do with bargaining; nor can one in this way reach actuality. To reach actuality, the whole movement must be reversed … Sin, then, belongs to ethics only insofar as upon this concept it is shipwrecked with the aid of repentence. If ethics is to include sin, its ideality comes to an end.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading other stuff about ideal theory lately – Gerald Gaus’ new book, in particular – and Kierkegaard’s ideas dovetail with all that, if a bit oddly. In David Estlund terms, Kierkegaard is saying that ethical theory needs to be maximally ‘aspirational’. In Kant-ish terms, which K. would prefer, ethical theory concerns a Kingdom of Ends – a condition or world in which, by hypothesis, everyone does right. But sin – original sin: the necessity of sin – is, in Estlund terms, a ‘concessive’ condition. Someone does wrong. So sin isn’t part of the subject matter of ethics, no more so than illogical thinking is part of logic. (I think he’s joking with ‘such talk is unethical’. You think he is getting indignant, up on his high horse. But it’s more like: I’m very sorry, you’ve knocked on the wrong office door.)

Now of course in logic you may study fallacies, typical cognitive biases, mistakes to avoid. But a logician will tell you: that’s not really logic. Not proper. It’s psychology or logic pedagogy. As Kierkegaard says, the mood appropriate to the study of this stuff is ‘antipathetic curiosity’. Kierkegaard’s point is that it’s a bit funny to try to pull a parallel move regarding sin. As if the Old Testament God leaned out of Heaven, saw Adam and Eve getting up to some non-compliance and declared, ‘Ah, psychology in action.’ Flipping the point: it would be weird if the Less Wrong community had a penitent sect, or confessional rituals. ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have exhibited cognitive bias.’ (Not that those folks aren’t a bit weird already … Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

So that’s sort of what Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety is about, in case you have ever wondered. The (non-psychological) significance of the category of non-compliance, given that ethics is strictly only concerned with compliance. What does it mean, for me, that I am, necessarily, not perfect? An ideal model of the necessarily perfect person doesn’t speak to that.

What does this have to do with anxiety? Kierkegaard writes: “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” (Which I think would go great on a coffee mug.) It’s complicated. Too much for one post.

UPDATE: Thanks for comments. I might have mentioned in the post that the one semi-formal logic paper I ever published was sort of on this theme, although I hadn’t read Kierkegaard on anxiety at the time. Narrowly, the thesis of that old essay of mine is that true moral dilemmas are possible. More broadly, I argue that deontic logic should allow for the fact that people can do the wrong thing. Misbehavior is not like contradiction. Standard deontic logic basically models a Kingdom of Ends in which everyone is compliant. So, of course, there can’t be true moral dilemmas there because, from the presence of a true dilemma, you could prove non-compliance. (That’s what a moral dilemma is. A situation in which you can’t avoid doing the wrong thing, one way or the other.) So I’m sort of agreeing with Kierkegaard but sort of arguing the exact opposite. One or the other, for sure.



Chris Ashley 06.16.16 at 2:05 pm


Ben 06.16.16 at 2:22 pm

Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

No! Of course not! People’s personal intellectual passions are no-one’s business but their own!


Anderson 06.16.16 at 3:30 pm

Confession: K has never done it for me. Always seems terribly precious about himself and his literary tricks.

Any reading recs, from Holbo or anyone else? What will change me from being sore about Soren?


bianca steele 06.16.16 at 3:52 pm

I was surprised to find I’d liked Sarah Bakewell’s book on the existentialists. She talks about Kierkegaard very briefly. Kierkegaard sounds like trying to impose a kind of Levinasian priority of morality over logic (Bakewell talks about Levinas too).


Anderson 06.16.16 at 3:54 pm

Thanks, Bianca! I saw that book too & cringed a bit, but the reviews have been better than the cover made me expect.


bianca steele 06.16.16 at 4:12 pm

She’s English after all.

Also the book is to some extent a look back at the enthusiasms of her youth.


Yankee 06.16.16 at 5:47 pm

Flipping the point: it would be weird if the Less Wrong community had a penitent sect, or confessional rituals. ‘Forgive me, Father, for I have exhibited cognitive bias.’

Why would that be weird?? Except for the anticultural anthropomorphism, and except for the bias rationalists often display against admitting confusion. Self-awareness and an opening towards repentance “correcting your errors” would seem to be a healthy thing.

OT, action would not be the same thing as ethics. Since action is situated. That is, “the Ought” is not the same as “the Good”.


Wiliam Cameron 06.16.16 at 10:05 pm

Prof. Holbo’s remarks are stimulating, but I have nothing insightful to say that would bring more light to the issue being discussed. I write here only to note how very Wittgensteinian the SK statement in the last paragraph is — which indicates how very Kierkegaardian Wittgenstein so often is.


John Holbo 06.17.16 at 1:17 am

I agree that Wittenstein often does sound very Kierkegaardian. And he read him. But I don’t think it was such a strong case of influence. More just a striking temperamental similarity. Just my biographical opinion of the case.


casmilus 06.17.16 at 6:57 am

One of the fascinating things about Wittgenstein is that he read lots of authors he did *not* mention explicitly, yet his writings are part of a dialogue with them.


Dave Maier 06.17.16 at 2:15 pm

Another guy who sometimes (maybe not often) sounds like Kierkegaard is Nietzsche. But I don’t think he read him – just another case of (limited) temperamental similarity. Also, given that we all know how much Kierkegaard hated Hegel, I am often struck (superficially, as I do not know either author well) by the former’s almost explicitly Hegelian language. For example, I can’t help reading that bit about “to reach actuality, the whole movement must be reversed” as taking at least a quasi-Hegelian context for granted. But that, again, could just be me.


Anderson 06.17.16 at 3:08 pm

11: N. heard of SK from a Danish admirer of N’s work, Georg Brandes; but it was in the last sane year or two of N’s life, and I don’t recall that N actually read K.


John Holbo 06.18.16 at 1:49 am

“Another guy who sometimes (maybe not often) sounds like Kierkegaard is Nietzsche.”

Yep. If memory serves Nietzsche discovered Kierkegaard very late. Just before he broke down. In related news: Kierkegaard discovered Schopenhauer and kind of liked him – despite the atheism – but this was just before he died.

As to Hegel: Kierkegaard seems to have liked Hegel fine in his early years, and a lot of his anti-Hegeling during his most productive years is somewhat approximate in its targeting. He’s really fussed about the Danish Hegelians, who were among the so-called ‘right Hegelians’.


js. 06.18.16 at 2:19 am

Anderson @3 — I think Fear and Trembling is fantastic, and I say this as someone who’s not a giant SK fan in general. On the other hand, I taught it a bunch of times and grew to like, even love it over time. So there’s that.


DM @11 — I’ve always assumed that SK’s use of Hegelian language and terminology was highly deliberate, that he’s e.g. explicitly taking the idea of “the ethical” (Sittlichkeit) from Hegel, and well, maybe not even arguing against (tho partly that) but doing some very weird shit with it.


LFC 06.18.16 at 2:52 am

Re the first block quote of K.: I assume “actuality” here is the English trans. of some Danish (?) or German word w a technical or abstruse or Hegelian meaning. Even so, I don’t much like the first block quote. Wd seem to make more sense to acknowledge human imperfections and work them into either the background or the foreground of one’s ethical thinking (or theory), as for example Rawls, ToJ, channeling Hume on the ‘circumstances of justice’.


Anderson 06.18.16 at 3:03 am

14: thanks!


LFC 06.18.16 at 3:42 am

There is/was a musician who called his group/ensemble the EitherOrchestra (or something like that) b.c he was a fan of K’s Either/Or. So that work apparently ‘did’ it for him. Don’t know whether it will ‘do’ it for you, or maybe you’ve already read it.


john c. halasz 06.18.16 at 3:43 am

Brandes revived and promoted Kierkegaard and saw to it that he was translated into German. Around 1900, mostly translated, K. took off in the German speaking world and quickly became all the rage. Karl Kraus adopted him along with Schopenhauer as his key philosophers. (Given that Kraus was concerned with the corruption of language/communication as a mark of some broader corruption, the ideal of authenticity is the obviously implied counter-position. Wittgenstein too would be preoccupied with issues of language/communication and their entanglements in his own way). In turn, Wittgenstein’s entire engagement with logic/philosophy was a Krausian vocation from beginning to end. So he must have read a fair amount of K. Two points of similarity are the assumption of multiple pseudonymous personae in K. and the multiple voicings in PI and the method of indirection in both K. and W. , though the exact reasons for those features are rather different in both cases. But then Wittgenstein wasn’t really an Analytic philosopher concerned with resolving technical problems, but rather sotto voce an existential philosopher, pre-occupied with human finitude. One way to read the basic concerns of PI is that it is all about the salvation of the soul, namely, Wittgenstein’s own soul. And that line about a medicine proffered by a *single individual* could be of little avail in the darkness of these times certainly echoes Kierkegaard.


mdc 06.18.16 at 1:13 pm

I think it’s the case in Hegel that the Ethical does not include a moment of sin, evil, or wrongdoing. These do appear as elements of Morality, Right, and Religion.

At the same time, when evil does appear in Hegel, it is necessary. This is one of Hegel’s heresies, I think: even original sin is not necessary in many of the theologians, nor is it in Kant. Is Kierkegaard really more of a Hegelian on this point?


gmoke 06.21.16 at 5:08 am

Mark Harvey is the leader of the Either Orchestra and teaches at MIT. It’s a big band with players who’ve played together for decades now.


SusanC 06.21.16 at 8:21 pm

re. the deontic logic paper.

According to the Wikipedia definition of a Kripke structure, the state relation R is left total, i.e. there always exists a next state. But that’s just an assumption built in to the axioms, and it’s easy enough to imagine systems that have a “halt” state with no subsequent state. If I remember correctly, the way to model such systems using temporal logic is to artificially add a “halted” state that has itself as a successor.

That kind of works if you’re using temporal logic to reason about some piece of digital electronics (e.g. program termination).

On the other hand, if your modal logic has an “ought” operator, it’s less clear what to do if the set of “obliged” states turns out to be empty. Suppose, for example, your University burocracy has published some rule book, and one wishes to formally model this using deontic logic. It is entirely conceivable that burocrats have screwed up and created a set of predicates that is not satisfiable, leading to the set of states in which the obligations are met is empty.

Comments on this entry are closed.