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Kierkegaard’s Pessimism and the Immediacy of Despair, Essay Example

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Essay

In Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, the author defines his concept of immediacy as follows: “All immediacy, in spite of its illusory pace and tranquility, is dread, and hence, quite consistently it is dread of nothing.” (Chapter 2) Furthermore, in Chapter III, (i), Kierkegaard writes: “Despair Over the Earthly or Over Something Earthly. This is pure immediacy, or else an immediacy which contains a quantitative reflection.” Accordingly, there is a crucial element of negativity which Kierkegaard identifies as constitutive of immediacy. Immediacy, in so far as it is associated with dread and despair is a burden upon human existence. But at the same time, it appears that this burden in its negativity is unavoidable for humans to a certain extent: this is because we are all to a certain degree immediate, to the extent that we immediately experience things in the world. This is made clear by the identification of immediacy with “despair over the Earthly or Over Something Earthly”: we all exist in the world, therefore, we all experience immediacy, and thus dread and despair. In this extent, it can be suggested that Kierkegaard associates our everyday mode of existence, a mode of existence common to all humans; that is to say, the world itself is despair and dread. Immediacy is simply our earthly existence, and this existence is primarily negative.

Certainly, this thesis and interpretation can be read as an account of Kierkegaard which presents him as a great pessimist, unable to find satisfaction or hope in our earthly world. But it certainly seems that Kierkegaard is precisely such a pessimist when he thinks of our existence in terms of the earthly world. This is also the religious element of Kierkegaard’s thought, because the religious as something other-worldly becomes the only way out of the despair of our worldly mode of existence. Despair is therefore tied to a notion of existence that reflects our basic manner of being in the world: it is the basic and most primordial manner of existing in the world that is immediacy. For example, Kierkegaard writes that “for immediacy doubtless does not know; but never does reflection catch its prey so surely as when it makes its snare out of nothing, and never is reflection so thoroughly itself as when it is…nothing.” (Chapter 2) In this dense passage, Kierkegaard separates immediacy from knowing, and therefore we gain a clue as to what immediacy entails. Immediacy is simply our immanent way of existing in the world, when we do not reflect upon this world itself, when we have no knowledge of our existence in the world. This would be called in modern parlance something to the extent of merely “going with the flow.” Immediacy is thus defined as a basic non-reflective type of existence, where we do not know about our situation, and we just merely accept the pre-governed rules of a world of which we also accept. Immediacy is something like a basic unit of experience of existence, which is common to all living things.

However, to understand Kierkegaard’s apparent pessimism in regards to the world, it is necessary to grasp why such a basic unit of existence is itself negative, that is, why is it associated with despair and dread. It would seem that, for Kierkegaard, the lack of knowledge and the lack of reflection upon our existence can only be understood in negative and pessimistic terms such as despair and dread. This point must be understood in terms of what Kierkegaard understands as the “self.” Immediacy and the self are something like conflicting concepts. Immediacy, as mentioned, is basically our existence in the world, our acceptance of the world as it is, without any reflection or knowledge of the world, without any critical appraisal of the world. This, for Kierkegaard, is the opposite of what he understands as self-hood, because self-hood in his definition is not the acceptance of the world as it is, but is rather our assertion of our individual existence in the world. Hence, Kierkegaard writes the following: “In so far as the self does not become itself, it is not its own self; but not to be one’s own self is despair.” (Chapter 3) Accordingly, Kierkegaard gives a certain account of existence in its basic despair and dread, and how to avoid this same despair and dread. We all exist in the world in an immediate manner, partaking in relations and normativities that are not our own creation. Accordingly, this type of mode of existence is one that is without any self-reflection, and is merely an existence that accepts the terms of existence with which we are given. In consequence, however, this is a rejection of our own selfhood, because we are submitting this selfhood to the norms of the world, and essentially subjugating our own self to this same world. Our self, in this regard, does not exist in immediacy. We are concerned about the “earth” and “earthly things”, but we never reflect about these earthly things: we accept the norms of the dominant discourse, and never express our individual selves. It is the jump to self-reflection that contains the moment when we begin to assert ourselves, precisely by reflecting on the acceptance of norms that makes up immediacy. But at the same time, by doing this, we transcend the world and immediacy: we leave it behind since we now question it, we leave it behind since we now assert our own individual selfhood.

However, Kierkegaard’s pessimism is more nuanced than merely stating that the non-reflective life is one of despair, while the assertion of selfhood is not. This is because we can only become aware of the despair of immediacy by reflection. As Kierkegaard writes, “no kind of despair can be defined directly (i.e., undialectically, but only by reflecting upon the opposite factor.” (Chapter 3, A. (1)) Since despair is immediacy, and immediacy’s opposite is reflection, it is only through reflection that we can learn that immediacy is despair. Then we understand that the immediate mode of existence is one of negativity, and therefore a pessimism emerges. However, perhaps there is a problem in Kierkegaard’s logic here. For if we can only know by breaking with immediacy that immediacy is despair, when we live in an immediate manner we do not see this same despair. In this regard, it would seem that not only is immediacy despair but that self-reflection also creates despair, since it is only through self-reflection that we can identify the despair of immediacy. It would seem that Kierkegaard’s pessimism in relation to the world is also a pessimism in relation to a self-reflection that is supposed to critique the world. Against Kierkegaard’s pessimism, it would seem that ignorance is bliss, since then we cannot even know that our everyday and immediate non-reflective existence is itself despair.

Despite this contradiction, we can conclude by stating that Kierkegaard’s basic premise, when placed in its historical context makes sense. In the Denmark of his age, it appears that Kierkegaard was critiquing forms of morality and norms that existed, showing that the general way of life was essentially negative, and that individuals should assert their selfhood and not merely blindly follow these norms. However, if we reflect on contemporary America, it would seem that this type of answer is not legitimate. America is a society which encourages people to assert their individuality, as demonstrated in the constant propaganda of the media talking about the greatness of the Founding Fathers and their championing of individual liberty. But is this selfhood also not a form of immediacy, a non-critical acceptance of some abstract notion of liberty? One only has to look at the great social inequalities in the United States to see that individuality and selfhood are no remedies for social ills: it only creates a selfish society. In this regard, Kierkegaard would look at American society as another mode of existence of dread. But Kierkegaard also foresaw this problem. He writes, “The self is in sound health and free from despair only when, precisely by having been in despair, it is grounded transparently in God.” True selfhood is not the belief in the self, but rather belief in a higher power: only then does the self truly escape the despair of the immediacy of existence. The concern with worldly matters that is the immediacy of despair, a situation that aptly describes contemporary America with its material culture and banal “Black Fridays”, would only support Kierkegaard’s general pessimism.

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death. Accessed at: http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=2067

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