An Examination Of Soren Kerkkegaard’s Notion Of Human Existence

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An Examination Of Soren Kerkkegaard’s Notion Of Human Existence


Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophy marks the beginning of a new way of ascribing meaning to the existing being. His contribution to this new direction was to find meaning to human existence, who exists as an individual. For him, man only realizes himself and lives authentically when he excludes himself from the crowd, takes his decisions as an individual, lives his life and faces his own death all by himself. Also, to live an authentic existence, man must take a leap of faith by suspending all universal moral obligations in absolute submission to the commands of his Creator. This work seeks to examine what Kierkegaard considers to be the gauge of meaningful and authentic human existence. It argues that Kierkegaard’s notion of individuality portrays the existing individual as selfish and egoistic as it tends to isolate him and set him against the public which he belongs. This work cautions against the consequences of this and calls for man’s conscious reflection of the extent to which he exist, as against merely living. The philosophical methods of analysis, criticism and prescription are employed, and we conclude that for man to live his authentic existence, he must exclude himself from conventional laws and external forces that may negate his own individuality, as he strives toward that for which he can live or die while being mindful of his absolute duty (dedication) to the commands of his Creator.

Chapter One


1.1 Background of the Study

Soren Kierkegaard is regarded as the father of contemporary existentialism. Existentialism, according to J. I. Omoregbe (39) deals “with concrete existence as opposed to essence.” This means, for the existentialists, existence precedes essence. Kierkegaard, described by Wittgenstein (cited in Pattison, 1) is “by far the most profound thinker of the last century”. His notion of human existence stems from the fact that Hegel metaphysical idealism presented human existence in an abstract, objective form. Kierkegaard saw Hegel’s philosophy “as inadequate because it shifted attention away from the concrete individual to the concept of universal” (Ozumba 86). For Ozumba (86) this implies that Hegel “merely invited humans to think instead of seeing them as existent being that should be involved in decisions and commitment that have bearing to their individuality and existence”. Kierkegaard’s thought also served as a reaction against speculative philosophy.

In his reaction, Kierkegaard built his existential thought in such a manner that it tended to become “a clarification of issue and an appeal to choose, an attempt to get men to see their existential situation and the great alternatives with which they are faced” (Copleston 336). Kierkegaard’s quest was to disassociate the conception of human existence from abstract object to questions that confront the individual as an existing being. Questions such as: What is the meaning of human life? How can one live authentically as a human person? What is the meaning of human freedom? How can one use his freedom in the face of moral chaos? are pertinent. Kierkegaard understood existence as a distinctive way of being, and that humans often focus on thought of a group to the detriment of their own unique individuality. Other than being an authentic individual, he is therefore subsumed in the crowd, thus, losing his individual self to abstract objective and societal control. In this sense, what it means, therefore, to be an authentic human being forms energetic question prompting this research on Soren Kierkegaard.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

The question of human existence has attracted so many considerations. There are some who approached it from the point of view of its absurdity and meaninglessness. Most of such people are atheists like Martin Heidegger, with Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre who played down very much, the essence of human existence as Hegel also did. However, there is the other group of existentialists who discussed human existence as a worthwhile venture. Such include the chief founder of contemporary existentialism in the person of Soren Kierkegaard. These philosophers expounded certain existential tenets which according to Lescoe (9) are geared towards “analyzing the basic structures of human existence and to call individuals to an awareness of their existence in its essential freedom”.

The problem of human existence is related wholly to this concept of freedom. Its use and abuse makes and mars man respectively. This is because freedom remains the pivot upon which man asserts himself. It is his relationship to this that categorizes him either as authentic or inauthentic individual. Thus, the measure of the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life is highly subjective but whichever way it is determined by the degree of commitment which one puts in as he tries to assert himself by the exercise of freedom.

Another question to be examined here remains whether one can live authentically when one has no authentic relation to the community which Kierkegaard regard as the crowd? It also takes into consideration the question of freedom and choice, man’s quest for existential meaning and Kierkegaard’s analysis of man’s stages on life way.

It is therefore in a bid to clarify some of these mind-bogging issues that the researcher is out to expose what Kierkegaard considers to be the gauge or the standard of meaningful human existence. With this in view, the work is a confrontation of man with the naked facts of his freedom and duty through which he makes the best out of his life as an individual.

1.3 Aims / Objectives of the Study

In view of the above stated problems. This work aims at:

  1. To awakes from slumber those who are yet to give in or enjoy the latest possibilities in them while those who have lost hope in realizing meaning out of their human existence as x-rayed by their excessive obsession or addiction to working so hard are to be reminded that Kierkegaard was right when he said that “until man actualizes his essential self in God, his life is full of anxiety” (Ibe 43).
  2. To make all see the difficulties in life as things designed to make all better and not bitter.
  3. To make all realize that human existence is meaningful in so far as it is approached subjectively through individual’s personal experiences, adequate sense and use of freedom, solemn and sincere fear of the Creator.
  4. To oriented contemporary man with the expression of their individual potentialities to an appreciable extent.
  5. To ascertain the possibility that man realizes himself when he denounce his moral obligations in submission to the commandments of his Creator.
  6. To purge man in seeking questions as well as offering answers regarding the meaning of his existence.

1.4 Justification of the Study

Human day-to-day challenges impact highly at all levels and leaves us with so many complexities to eventually falling into the disposition of ‘follow the trends’ for existential survival. The weaknesses in human authenticity in nearly every facet of human life or society cause man to almost be a blind copy of itself or the other person. Typically, daily problems of existence sometimes isolate us from engaging in self-realization to fully understand ourselves and deal with questions that impugn our very nature so as to realize our purpose in an ever changing and ever complex world.

Man often focuses on thought of others to the detriment of his unique individuality. Other than being an authentic individual, who answers the question of freedom, meaning and faces the existential phenomenon of death, suffering, dread, despair, absurdity etc, man is otherwise subsumed in the crowd thus losing his individuality to abstract objective or societal control. Kierkegaard’s opposition to this trend and his answers to the question “what does it mean to be existing as a human being?”, informs the energetic question gingering this research on his notion of human existence. Thereby justifies the rationale behind this research bearing in mind it impact in awakening the contemporary man to the reality of himself as an existing being.

1.5 Significance of the Study

Existential philosophy rest on the conception that man must first exist, then take responsibility of creating meaning or essence for his existence. This task of creating meaning can be says to be enormous. Therefore, man must be at its best to be able to exercise such responsibility. Consequently, questions regarding the human person arise. Questions such as who is a human being? What does existence like? Or what is the meaning of man’s existence. Does man have absolute freedom to make choices? etc. It is in this sense that this research plays a significant role to man as he hopes to realize himself. Thus, the significance of this work can be outline as follows:

It helps man to realize his purpose of existence thereby fashioning his own life through realization and reflection on himself by excluding himself from the crowd.

Kierkegaard proposed three stages on life would benefits contemporary man to come to the actualization of his essence with the understanding that to exist is to be an individual who strives, who considers alternatives, who chooses, who decides and who makes a commitment more importantly, for ensuring existential commitment, worthy of making the individual sound, critical focused, brave, courageous and analytical minded in making decisions for his very life.

It is also of relevance to contemporary man in re-orienting the contemporary world on the fact that self-realization and valuation is possible only if man makes personal decision out of deep personal reflection and free exercise of his will power while being ready to take responsibilities for his subjective decisions than objective crowd following.
Also, bearing in mind the scope of epistemology which deals with the nature, scope and criterion of knowledge. The research contributes epistemologically by revealing such knowledge that qualifies such a conclusion on human nature. It’s also awakes the slumbering man to take responsibility and create his essence or meaning even in the face of existential predicaments.

1.6 Methodology of Study

In order to give this work its required philosophical grounding, the researcher made wide consultation of research materials on Kierkegaard. The outcome of that effort is manifested in the acquisition of deep knowledge of existentialists’ concept of human existence. However, there is strict adherence to Kierkegaardian method. Some necessary opinions or insights of others are employed as and when due as the research progresses.

The work therefore employs the philosophical methods of analysis, criticism and prescription. Analytical, as to how it relates the existential ideas to subjective experiences. Critical, in that it does not assimilate all Kierkegaard’s assumptions, rather it appraises his strong points but criticizes the unwholesome aspects of his notion or teachings in regard to human existence. Prescriptive, as it seeks to prescribe answer to the questions regarding the meaning of authentic human existence.

1.7 Scope of the Study

What formed the scope of this work stems eventually from what Kierkegaard applied in his effort to ascribe meaning to human existence through authentic individuality. This implies his ideas of the individual and the mode of the individual’s existence. Also, the scope of this research covers Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy, particularly on his notion of human existence and, by extension, his thought as it affects the contemporary man.

1.8 Organization of the Work

The work is organized into four chapters. While chapter one introduces the work, it also presents the background of the work states the problem, aims/objectives, justification, significance, method, scope, organization of the work and definition of some keys terms. Chapter two reviews related literature, with specific attention to some other existentialists’ views on human existence. Chapter three exposes the main ideas of Kierkegaard as regards human existence. And chapter four concludes the work by evaluating Kierkegaard’s idea of human existence.

1.9 Definition of Terms

Meaning of Human

Etymologically, the English loanword from old French “human”, ultimately from Latin “humanus”, the adjective form of homo “man”. In common usage, the species of the genes homo (anatomically and behaviourally modern homo sapiens). It usage often designates differences between that species as a while and any other group or entity. It is a synonym humanity which could be refers to a specific individual of either sex.

Defining Existence

Existence denotes the state of being alive or being real; the fact or state of existing. In other words, existence denotes the continuance or maintenance of life; living especially in adverse circumstances. It is synonymous with life, being, duration, subsistence, reality, survival, actuality, continuance, and continuation. In a nutshell, existence implies man’s way of life, situation or life style.

What is Existentialism?

Existentialism as a philosophical endeavour is seen differently from the perspective of different philosophers. According to R. C. Solomon, existentialism:

“is the explicit conceptual manifestation of an existential attitude–a spirit of ‘the present age’. It is a philosophical realization of a self-conscious living in a “broken world”… a world into which we are “thrown” or “condemned” yet “abandoned” and “free”…a world which appears to be indifferent or even “absurd”…” (ix)

This definition sees existentialism “as an attitude which begins with a disoriented individual, facing a confused world that he cannot accept” (Olawonyin 24). On his part, G. O. Ozumba sees existentialism as “the philosophy of human existence…concerned with the individual in the uniqueness of his existence. It therefore renounces reason, universality, abstraction and objectivity in favour of privacy, particularity, randomness and subjectivity” (87-88). Supporting this view, Idang (99) writes that “it would seem, man with his problems, is the main focus of existentialism. It is a manner of philosophizing, a way and manner of looking at the world especially of man and his place in the universe.” For Aqulanna (147) existentialism “is concerned with the ambiguities and paradoxes that constitute the inner being of man”.

From the foregoing, existentialism, generally, is a philosophical outlook that stresses man’s predicament, and lay emphasis on man existence as an individual rather than an abstract being.

Chapter Four

Evaluation and Conclusion

4.1 Evaluation

Critically, Soren Kierkegaard’s notion of human existence being a philosophical endeavour has attracted criticisms both from the point of view of it strengths and from the point of view of it weaknesses. Philosophically, Kierkegaard can be criticized for his theistic portrayal of the human nature, that is, notion of human existence is highly built ontheological foundation than of philosophy.His too much emphasis on individuality portrays him and the existing individual as selfish individuals who think about themselves alone. Kierkegaard portrayal of man in realization of his authentic self sees man as selfish and egoistic being who strives toward that which only concerns him and care less or nothing about that which concerns others. His attacks on the crowd seem to isolate man and set the individual against the crowd in which he belongs. From Aristotelian sense, this is faulty, because only a beast or God can exist solitarily not the individual. For the simple reason that man is both ‘homo politico’ (a political animal) and ‘homo socio’ (a social animal), an individual cannot afford to exist solitarily without his fellows which make up the crowd.

From this standpoint, Jose Ortega Casset warned that man is what the world invites him to be and the basic features of our lives are impressed upon it by the form of its surroundings as in a mould. Man therefore is naturally inclined to the world. So, if Kierkegaard want us to believe that crowd which is a conglomeration of school, family, church, social association etc, alienate and in-authenticate the individual, why then did God whom man must make a leap to in order to live his authentic self, find it good and worthy to make for man a partner? ”And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’’ Gen. 2:18

From an epistemic standpoint, another problem discovered from Kierkegaard’s idea of authentic human self as one who exist subjectively, is his over bearing criticism on the rational power of man to be objectified. It can be argued that man without rationality tend to lead wayward life; man with his sense of pure reason and focused rationality can equip himself with all that is required to find and create meaning for his existence. Attacking Kierkegaard situation of the individual as a subjective being, Ozumba (87) argues that “If all men are to act on purely subjective grounds, there will be no education, no system of morals, no organized religion, no government and no philosophy’’.

On another point, Kierkegaard’s idea seems not applicable to everyone. A critical examination of his idea seems to imply that to exist authentically is directly tied to the religious learning of protestant Christianity. But he failed to tell us what the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Taoists; Muslims etc have to leap to in order to authenticate their existence. Or do they have to leap to the Christian God? From this standpoint, Kierkegaard does not inquire into the authenticity of human existence as a whole, but he preaches Christianity.Based on his Protestant background and adherence to Luther’s doctrinal teaching of faith, he implies that authentic human existence is necessarily tight to the Christian faith. This is rather theological and un-philosophical.Again, it remained to be seen whether Kierkegaardhad to answers the question about the possibility of faith without reason. Can faith be possible without reason? To us, they seem to be complementary. Philosophically speaking, one’s faith can only be based on reason. In other words, one cannot have faith on something without a concrete reason for such faith. Ezedike has argued that Kierkegaard’s notion of human existence “appears to be a passionate reaction to the dark side of human existence but it fails to offer anything of cognitive values.” (91)

Apart from that, it also calls to questions Kierkegaard’s explanations of the dialectical transitions from the aesthetic sphere to the religious stage. This transition seems to be watertight, and it can be asked: Can one not transit from the aesthetic to the religious without necessarily undergoing the ethical? In his criticism, Levinas argued that the leap of faith; the suspension of the ethical and the leap into the religious is a type of violence. According to Levinas (cited in Lippitt, 136) “Kierkegaard’s violence begins when existence is forced to abandon the ethical stage in order to embark on the religious stage….” Levinas argument is based on the fact that, man authentic existence lies at the religious stage, then Kierkegaard’s Abraham story seems to have some fault. For him, since man was to obey the commands of his Creator absolutely, and if Abraham was truly in the religious stage, as he claims, he would not have listened to the Angel’s command and should have continued to kill Isaac. So “transcending ethics” seems like a loophole to excuse would-be murders from crime and thus is unacceptable.However, the search for meaning of human existence is one of the most powerful human propensities; Kierkegaard invokes God as the ultimate source of authentic existence. And it would seem that the purposes of the Supernatural Being could affect the human struggle for a meaningful and authentic existence

However, despite these weaknesses examined from Kierkegaard view on human existence. It is to be noted that Kierkegaard’s existential thought has provided a great insight to human authentic existence and personal freedom as an existing individual. Kierkegaard’s conception that he ‘who follows the crowd’ and does not choose his or her own identity and live passionately as an individual cannot even be said to really exist.” (Cited in Solomon et al 313).
Supporting Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger asserts that humans only become authentic when they detach themselves from the crowd. They exist passionately when they take hold of themselves as individuals and find “authentic” selves. In Lawhead critique of Kierkegaardian view, his idea had a big influence in psychological research. In other words, psychologists find Kierkegaard’s notion that persons are self-creating beings, that alienation from one’s self is man greatest malady, and personal authenticity is the route to mental wholeness as psychologically interesting. Hence, Kierkegaard had enormous influence on secular writers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Either directly or indirectly, Kierkegaard significantly influenced twentieth century artists, novelists, poets, existentialists and theologians.

We would like to contend that Kierkegaard’s exposition is, to some extent, edification to human existence. It edifies us, encourages us and engages us to become more conscious of the extent to which we exist, as opposed to merely living. Kierkegaard’s great virtue lies in his reclamation of the existing individual from philosophical, political, social, theological, and scientific abstraction as he struggles to make life meaningful amidst a bombardment of answers and options. His critiques of Hegelian philosophy and abstract reasoning reminds us that individuals construct philosophies, individuals interpret revelations, individuals draw scientific conclusions, individuals decide what is objective, make their choices and act upon them. To some extent, Kierkegaard is right to say that to exist, authenticity and passionately is only possible if one exists as an individual detached from the crowd, makes his choices subjectively and find solace when he encounters God.

4.2 Conclusion

From our examination of Kierkegaard’s analysis and exposition of human existence, each person faces the choice of choosing between three fundamental kinds of self-actualization namely, the aesthetic, ethical and religious. It can be pointed out that his notion purges up the question: what does it mean to be existing as an authentic human person? An answer to his fundamental question places one in a better position in which he can realize himself and live truly authentic in the world. Kierkegaard has shown that, man in existent has nearly forgotten what concerns him as a human person and his existential predicaments seem unknown. This can be attributed to the contributory influence of science and man’s over-confidence in reductionism. Kierkegaard has truly proven that the importance to be individual takes a great importance as a way of orienting human life towards authenticity.Moreover, his emphasize on the importance of choice is indispensable toward authentic existence. Consequently, what constitutes our decisions is a fact we must all realize. Man cannot depend on systems of laws and social conventions alone as a decisive instruction for his life choices; every choice has to flow from his personal appropriation. In fact, to exist authentically, man must bear in mind that being in existent involves decisions that transcend the realm of moral and conventional laws. Every person must always realize that death, dread, despair are characteristics of the existence of man. Following his analysis on life stages, man must always ask himself what ought I to do? He must disentangle himself from sensual and intellectual pleasure which could lead him to boredom and suicide. Since, neither aesthetic nor ethical life can authenticate our existence; a leap is a necessity, highly significant. And we must be open to a teleological suspension of the ethical. In other words, moral laws and habit have to be set aside in response to the divine command. Based on this fact, it can be said that human existence will be meaningful if man realizes his purpose of existence, detaches himself from the crowd, embraces subjectivity and reflects on his life as an individual and relates personally with his Creator (God).

We have clearly seen that the possibility of authentic human existence lies in only one direction, a direction that man must live his own existence solely as an individual; an individual who is free to take his decisions, acts upon it and consequently be a direct respondent to the outcome of such actions. In making specific recommendations to Kierkegaard’s thought on authentic human existence as it affect the contemporary man. First, the research recommended that, there should be a clear and absolute departure from the way individuals’ perceived their own existence. Individuals must see their existence as a concretely existing subject for whom the journey to truly meaningful living involves a transformation of their being. Secondly, laws which emphasis existence as something to be striven for by each individual through their choice, values and actions which are particular to their own life should be promulgated. With this in mine, the individual would be protected in living out his existence as particularly to him, not necessarily universal laws that served to alienate the individual. Third, contemporary man must realize that death being natural is also an existential phenomenon. So, to realize authentic selfhood, it is recommended that man in his daily living must lived to is best; man must not be too anxious about the next day (the future) to avoid the possibility of falling into sin. For the Holy Book had even warned that we should not be worried about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. From this premise, every person is encourage to live conscious of being despair, the dangers of dread and the inevitability of death. Fourthly, the work also recommended that, individuals in their choices of action must not be compelled to act particularly as it concerns them. For to realize one authentic self, individual’s freedom of choices is a fact that cannot be denied. Universal and conventional laws to an extent deprived man of his authenticity. Although it can still be observed but each person must be allowed in time of ethical conflicts to make his own decisions and lived by it. Fifthly, since living too satisfactorily, sensually, and emotional always led to boredom and suicide (inauthentic self) according to Kierkegaard, man must strive towards the Absolute. Also since ethics sometimes conflict our personal appropriation and convert us to merely follow conventions, we must then strive beyond the ethical; we must always remember that we owes as a duty to fulfill authentic selfhood with solemn, sincere and absolute dedication to our Maker.
Lastly, the work highly recommended that Kierkegaard’s thought though was lay down century ago still served as an epistemic and practical grounding for contemporary man to self-reflect andconsciously authenticate his existence. Even though, man by nature of his existence is a social being, he must not allow social influence to negate, alienate or corrupt his selfhood. He must note that despite of himself existing with others, he has his own decisions to make; his own life to live and importantly his own death to die. So, living merely as others is alien and evil every individual most avoid. To his end, Kierkegaard’s Notion of Human Existencehas served as a panacea for contemporary man to self-reflect and consciously life his authentic and meaningful life.

It can be concluded that Soren Kierkegaard’s Notion of Human Existence become relevant as it tries to awaken the existential being to the need to self-consciously reflect positively on his human action in this world of struggle and fundamental challenges. In a world where the ‘crowd’ is the theological, axiological and epistemic foundation for actions, a world where authentic or subjective human existence is being objectified, a world where morals seem to irritate people, a world where the call of holiness is ignored and the content of individuality, subjectivity, death, dread, despair, freedom and choice, meaning is misunderstood amidst an immeasurable community life. Soren Kierkegaard’s Notion of HumanExistence have sensibly lead us to the understanding and positive reflection of St. Augustine Maxim that ‘God had created man, but man’s soul shall never rest until it rests in God’. Thus, man as an existential being must always strive toward the truth which is true for him, an idea for which he can live or die.

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