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Kierkegaard to the Rescue! November 2, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, religion.
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I was intrigued when Gordon Marino’s New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Kierkegaard on the Couch,” popped up on my Google meter. (I was also intrigued when I read that aside from being a Kierkegaard expert, Marino is also a boxing trainer. Kierkegaard, being fond of incongruities and ironies, would probably have liked that. At any rate, never at a loss for words, he’d have had something to say about it.)

These days when philosophers hire out as counselors for people whose world view has crumbled, Marino is taking a bold and interesting step, bringing Søren Kierkegaard into the debate about the quintessential contemporary American response to depression: pills, brain scans, and other external mind-pacifying approaches. Can Kierkegaard help us when our despair over life is running high? But not all cases of despair are depression, says Marino:

“These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair.”


His lapidary “Sickness Unto Death” is a study of despair, which in the Danish derives from the notion of intensified doubt. Almost as a challenge to keep out the less than earnest reader, Kierkegaard begins “Sickness” with this famous albeit slightly ironic bit of word play:

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

Marino’s suggestion is to consider the possibility that when we feel an overwhelming malaise about our life and our self, to not go straight to the doctor and ask for Prozac, but to go along with Kierkegaard and explore the condition of the self, considering the possibility that we might learn something about our own spirit and spirituality or lack of it. Not a bad suggestion. Looking into the depths of our own soul before we decide to be medicated into normalcy is a good philosophical approach. But why does Marino stop there? He needs to  share with us the real point of Kierkegaard’s despair analysis.  It is to find God, not just once, but as part of a continual quest. We feel despair (which in Danish is a little different, “fortvivlelse,” more like a profound sadness than despair), says Kierkegaard,  precisely because we feel disconnected when all we find when we look into our selves is our selves looking back at us. And we experience the fundamental doubt. So we need that leap of faith that Kierkegaard’s philosophy is incomprehensible without—and which is so uncomfortable for existentialists who have settled into the atheistic brand of existentialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy got it right:

But the choice of faith is not made once and for all. It is essential that faith be constantly renewed by means of repeated avowals of faith. One’s very selfhood depends upon this repetition, for according to Anti-Climacus, the self “is a relation which relates itself to itself” (The Sickness Unto Death). But unless this self acknowledges a “power which constituted it,” it falls into a despair which undoes its selfhood. Therefore, in order to maintain itself as a relation which relates itself to itself, the self must constantly renew its faith in “the power which posited it.” There is no mediation between the individual self and God by priest or by logical system (contra Catholicism and Hegelianism respectively). There is only the individual’s own repetition of faith. This repetition of faith is the way the self relates itself to itself and to the power which constituted it, i.e. the repetition of faith is the self.

Is that what Marino wanted to say? Did he know, and chose not to go there, or did he not know? Because you can’t have one part of Kierkegaard without the other: you can’t have the intriguing language games and witty insight into the aesthetic and the ethical mindset without also getting Kierkegaard’s view on faith and religion. You can’t just go half way and assume that Kierkegaard can help us gain a deeper understanding of our self without anti-depressants or therapists, and deselect his actual solution to the problem of despair. What Marino’s suggestion leads to, then, is responding to the sense of modern despair with the old-fashioned question of “Have you found God?” Not a question that appeals to many contemporary thinkers, depressed or not. The debate on the NY Times website is animated, but few get Marino’s point, and even fewer have gotten Kierkegaard’s point. Be that as it may, it was fun to see Søren be dusted off and reintroduced as having a solution to a contemporary problem.



1. Huan - November 3, 2009

Perhaps his intent was to posit the problem and leave the readers in blatant awareness of their existential issues and reach their own solution through some old-fashioned soul searching. It seems like the problem the Kierkegaard posits isn’t necessarily impossible to solve without his “leap of faith”, it isn’t always necessarily insufficient to have just yourself look back at you is it?

2. gordon marino - November 4, 2009

Many thanks for taking the time to reflect on my little offering. It is true that I left out the God side of the equation. I tried to fit it in a sentence or three but just could not get it right. That would not have put me on Soren good side that is for sure.

If anyone is interested in SK at the College please keep the Library in mind. We have vibrant fellows program and an International Conference this year.

Gordon Marino

3. Huan - November 4, 2009

Haha guess I was wrong. 😀

4. Nina Rosenstand - November 4, 2009

And thank you for visiting us and chiming in! A highly appreciated comment. You opened up a very valuable debate–and as everyone who blogs/writes knows, you have to make choices about how far you’re going to follow your thought. The “God side” is indeed something you can’t boil down to a few sentences. I will add your Library to my research links for my students. And I’m still intrigued by the boxing angle!

Huan, good to see you’re back!

5. Robert - December 8, 2009

I disagree with the statement that Kierkegaard’s philosophy can not be separated from his ideas of faith and religion. The great thinker thought of the self through a religiously motivated eyepiece, his ideas described here centered around a feeling and satisfaction that the religious communities attribute to “god’s presence.” Though the religious communities claim that this feeling is unique to Christian faith, the atheistic community would beg to differ. Growing up in the South Bible Belt of North Carolina, I was told that only those with faith in God were capable of feeling contentment and true satisfaction (as well as a whole host of qualities that are oddly similar to those of Abraham Maslow’s idea of a self-actualize person). Clearly, this is a faulty understanding of humanity; many non-religious or non-Christian religious persons are capable of feeling all those same feelings, because they stem from completion of human motivations and congruent understanding of the surrounding world (psychosocial congruence), not solely from faith or constantly renewed faith.

In this sense, the modern atheist search for internal completion for the same reasons as and with the same results as a Christian search for faith. They are, fundamentally, the same search. Under that light, Kierkegaard’s philosophy can be separated from his faith by assigning the same actions and responses Christian’s have in regard to faith, to the atheistic counterpart of searching for self-actualization. One must simply view the concepts of faith and self-actualization as synonyms, both defined as a search for completion and psychosocial congruence.

With all that said, I agree with the proposal of Marino. The difference between chemical and cognitive depression and despair falls on a fine line, but the line exists all the same. Whether a person searches for faith through religions or for self-actualization, the search for non prescription based remedies to depression is essential to the strengthening of society, and more importantly, the person’s who comprise it.

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