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Fr. 583

December 15, 2014

The Sickness unto Death1, hailing from the latter years of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard’s corpus, brims with both strands of Hegelian thought and reactions to Hegel’s intellectual legacy in Europe. Hegel’s presence within the work, though unnamed, has typically led scholars to regard The Sickness unto Death as a stiff criticism of the Hegelian pairing of faith and reason and the definition of the individual in terms of the community. In recent years, however, Jon Stewart and other scholars have sought to challenge that view and reassess the role of Hegel’s thought within Kierkegaard’s corpus.

Consequently, this investigation will endeavor to discover the extent to which Kierkegaard employs, critiques, and subverts the types of logic (namely, the dialectical process) and the views developed by Hegel on religion and perpetuated by the European Hegelians. Accordingly, the examination shall consist of three sections. The first will examine the employment of Hegel’s modes of thought within the work, focusing on the use of the dialectic model in assessing despair. The second shall scrutinize the challenge to Hegelian thought, centering on the individual in relation to the community; this section shall also address the issue of whether Kierkegaard uses the work to respond to Hegel or to Danish Hegelians. The final section will consist of an analysis of the structure of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 18272 and Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death, with special attention given to the triadic and dyadic models developed and employed, respectively.

Hegelian dialectics prove foremost amongst Kierkegaard’s tools in his discussion of despair within The Sickness unto Death. Unlike Hegel’s name, Kierkegaard overtly utilizes the term “dialectic” without reservation throughout the work. While Kierkegaard uses the overarching term “dialectic” to label the argumentative structure of the work, Hegel’s dialectic, as noted in Jon Stewart’s Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered3, can refer to either of two principal logical exercises: the first being a pattern of progression or phenomenological development as found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and the second referencing the three-part movement, of thesis-antithesis-synthesis utilized more widely in his Science of Logic and The Lectures of 1827. Both can be found, to an extent, within the account of despair.

The first, the phenomenological process, serves as the framework by which the various types of despair are analyzed and dissected. Kierkegaard’s treatment and identification of “the forms of this sickness” (Kierkegaard 29) in C is marked by development, intensification, and the unsteady progression (even regression). One should note that, for Kierkegaard, the placement of the individual in increasingly intense levels of despair does not necessitate a linear movement through the forms; some individuals, Kierkegaard argues, never gather momentum enough to transcend the initial state of despair and complete unconsciousness. Others might simply oscillate between the lower forms for the entirety of their existence.

Regardless, the movement from unconsciousness of the self in despair, present within the lower forms, results in the appearance of despair’s more debilitating forms when the self obtains consciousness. That accretion of consciousness of self asserts itself as fundamental to the intensification as “the ever increasing intensity of despair depends upon the degree of consciousness or is proportionate to its increase: the greater the degree of consciousness, the more intensive the despair” (Kierkegaard 42). Thus, the growing self-consciousness of the self in despair enables the higher forms of the sickness.

Moreover, each form of despair seems to imply or necessitate the existence of another form to follow, as the structure “implies that the forms of despair contain points of continuity and are not simply replacement change” as the forms “develop out of one another” (Stewart 582). The states of despair do not replace one another as the individual moves through them. Rather, they exist as do rungs on a ladder; the description within C evinces the image of a movement through an synchronous hierarchy of psychological states; the hierarchy of despair exists in its full form, complete with varying levels, as a complete system throughout a timeline, with which the self interacts in a manner marked by dynamism and movement, rather than the replacement of states. This enables the oscillation and regression that Kierkegaard sees as part and parcel of the progression and intensification of despair.

Thus, the dialectical methodology of phenomenology developed by Hegel exhibits itself most forcefully within Kierkegaard’s description of the forms. Yet the presence of Hegel’s methods does not end there. Strikingly, the three-part movement of thesis-antithesis-synthesis exhibits itself in some ways within the internal components that underlie and enable the progression; here, Hegel’s dialectical methods have been layered. Kierkegaard describes the early forms of despair in a dyadic manner, framing them in terms of two antithetical abstractions: the relation of finitude and infinitude, the relation of possibility and necessity, etc. Most often, these relations (or, more appropriately, misrelations) frame and found the forms of despair throughout the progression of the sickness.

While Kierkegaard posits that “the self is the conscious synthesis” (29), his employment of the term “synthesis” differs from that of Hegel’s in the three-part movement from The Lectures of 1827, in that Kierkegaard’s “synthesis” does not reconcile the relationship in the manner’s of Hegel’s triad. Kierkegaard’s synthesis retains a dyadic form, which structure is replicated throughout the work with Kierkegaard’s frequent usage of a structure following an A-B, 1-2 pattern. The frequent occurrences of these features without the introduction of C’s or 3’s appears to be Kierkegaard’s most distinctive break with Hegelian dialectics. This feature of the argumentative structure within The Sickness unto Death will be discussed later at length within the third section of this examination.


1 Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death. Princeton University Press Edition. 1980. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press.

2 Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 1827. One Volume Edition. 2006. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson. Translated by R.F. Brown, P.C. Hodgson, and J.M. Stewart. Clarendon Press.

3 Stewart, Jon. Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered. Cambridge University Press Edition. 2003. Cambridge University Press.

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