“Once you label me you negate me.”
Soren Kierkegaard, born 5 May 1813, wasn’t really a philosopher at all. At least not in the academic sense. Yet he produced what many people expect of philosophy. He didn’t write about the world, he wrote about life – how we live, and how we choose to live. Kierkegaard philosophised about what it means to be alive. His subject was the individual and his or her existence: the ‘existing being’.
In Kierkegaard’s view, this purely subjective entity lay beyond the reach of reason, logic, philosophical systems, theology, or even ‘the pretences of psychology’. Nonetheless it was the source of all these subjects. As a result of such thinking, philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have all at some time disowned Kierkegaard. The branch of philosophy – or nonphilosophy, for many purists – to which Kierkegaard gave birth has come to be known as existentialism.
It took some time for existentialism to catch on. Some philosophers – such as Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger – were existentialists without realising it (according to the existentialists). Heidegger vehemently denied this, and Nietzsche died before anyone could tell him. Indeed, it wasn’t until almost a century after Kierkegaard’s death that existentialism came into its own, with the emergence of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris after World War Two.
The café and university philosophy
The intellectuals of postwar Paris were in despair: there was nothing for them to believe in anymore. Surrealism, which had gained intellectual credence by describing itself as absurd, had now been recognised as ridiculous. And with the rise of Stalin, French intellectuals even found it difficult to believe in communism (though they certainly tried). Then along came existentialism, which didn’t require one to believe in anything at all. Indeed, it even emphasized that despair was part of the human condition.
Existentialism soon became the rage and spread beyond the cafés of the Left Bank, as far afield as the cafés of Greenwich Village, the coffee bars of London, and the beatnik haunts of San Francisco. It also attracted attention in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. Existentialism was both a café and a university philosophy – an unusual blend of the spurious and the deeply insightful. This proved equally attractive to artists, writers, philosophers, and charlatans, all of whom made their contribution to its growth. In this way, existentialism proved a suitable forerunner to behaviourism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and the like, which were to become the rage in the following decades. Existentialism’s core philosophy – ‘the problem of existence’ – was considered very much a product of the twentieth century, with its characteristic alienation, angst, absurdity, and preoccupation with similar buzzwords. But all this derives directly from Kierkegaard, who was born almost a century before Sartre.
What is existence?
Kierkegaard was certainly ahead of his time. Yet he also brought about a long-overdue reexamination of one of the first philosophical questions ever to be asked: ‘What is existence?’ This question had of course continued to be asked ever since, by almost everyone except philosophers. To them the question was either laughable, invalid, or answered so completely by their own philosophy that there was no need whatsoever to go on asking it. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, insisted that every individual should not only ask this question but should make his very life his own subjective answer to it. This stress on subjectivity is Kierkegaard’s main contribution.
The problem of existence – or ‘being’ – was central to the thinking of many of the earliest philosophers. Before Socrates and Plato introduced an element of reason into philosophy (thus making it academically respectable), philosophers had been much concerned with the question of being. What did it mean to be alive? What was the meaning of existence? they wondered. Such naïve questions are nowadays laughed out of court by serious philosophers. Asking these questions is simply meaningless, we are told. Yet we mere mortals stubbornly continue to ask them. In our artless fashion, some of us even expect philosophy to provide an answer. Several pre- Socratic philosophers, blithely unaware of the sophistication of philosophers to come, even insisted upon taking such questions seriously.