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November 01, 2022 3 min read

kierkegaard-aesthetic-ethical-religious-stages

Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, is often referred to as the first philosopher of existentialism. This is sometimes justified in distinction to the systematists, namely represented by Hegel and the thinkers of German idealism.

Truth, according to Kierkegaard, cannot be grasped in sentences or through logic, since the human condition is characterized by its existence in an absurd cosmos. Nevertheless, there is truth and also a meaning of life, but ultimately these can only be grasped through the famous leap of faith. Kierkegaard is therefore also called a Christian philosopher, although it should be noted that he was very much at odds with the official teachings of the state church.

Kierkegaard thus shows himself to be both a philosophical and a theological or religious thinker who sees philosophy as a means of rethinking Christian faith, rejecting any kind of speculative philosophy in the spirit of Hegel (see also Dialectical Aufhebung) because it presumes to be able to adequately think, understand and thereby comprehend "objective" truth, that is, truth that lies outside of man.

To approach truth is therefore an individual matter. Kierkegaard thereby identifies the three essential spheres of human existence, which are shown in the meme and which are supposed to represent in a vague way which possibilities a human being has to approach the truth and thus also the existential answer to the meaningfulness of life.

At the most primal stage, the aesthetic stage, man lives entirely in the immediacy of sensual feeling, which is the motive and goal of his actions. He exists entirely unreflectively, without being clear about himself as far as the relationship between body and mind is concerned. This is also where a latent despair comes from, in that man feels that he is not himself, but remains trapped in externals. The means man uses to recognize this desperate state of his is irony. By relating to himself ironically, that is, distanced, he gains an elevated standpoint from which he recognizes his despair and attempts to overcome it. Thus he reaches the second stage.

The ethical stage: Man recognizes himself as both an immanent (worldly) and transcendent (otherworldly) being by reflectively relating himself to the relationship between body and spirit. He finally acknowledges his being as a rational being and recognizes his responsibility before himself and the world, which makes him an ethical being. As the step from the recognition of worldly existence to the transcendent part of man's being takes place, Kierkegaard concludes that man cannot find the grounding of his being as a spiritual self, and to that extent not subject to the causality of the world, in himself. Rather, he faces an infinite, absolute unknown, God, who is the cause of man's infinity and freedom. If he does not do this, he falls back into the state of despair.

Interestingly, it is humor, which, unlike irony, contains a much deeper form of skepticism but also positivity, is, according to Kierkegaard, the means to make the leap from the ethical to the third, to the religious stage.

The religious stage: Here now the human being accepts his being set by God, thus the condition that his existence comes to him only from God as the infinite existence. Therefore, the goal of the religious person is to enter into an existential relationship with God. This can happen in faith alone. God as the Absolute is not subjected to the causality of the world and therefore withdraws as the unknown from the human understanding. Faith therefore demands as a condition the "crucifixion of the intellect".

However, the intellect is not completely unnecessary, but serves as a corrective of faith, in that unreasonable things cannot be believed, and it is a prerequisite of self-reflection, without which the ascent in the stages cannot be achieved. But since the intellect is finite and uses purely immanent means, intellectual knowledge of God is par excellence impossible. Kierkegaard here joins the tradition of negative theology. Here, thinking and speaking about God is restricted by consistently criticizing and rejecting all positive statements as uncertain. Only negative statements can be considered true (e.g. the in-finite God).


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