Kierkegaard's Ironic Stage of Existence[Notice]

  • George J. Stack
Kierkegaard’s Ironic Stage of Existence Socrates was and remained the paradigm of the philosoper for Kierkegaard. It was Socrates who first showed the intimate relation­ ship which exists, or should exist, between philosophy and life. The enigmatic being of Socrates fascinated Kierkegaard from his earliest work on The Concept of Irony to his last journal entries towards the end of his life. Socrates represented the unique, paradoxical individual who cannot be fitted neatly into any traditional categories. If there is a 1 category ’ into which he does fall, it is the * category ’ of the in­ dividual, a * category ’ which is presented by Kierkegaard ironically since there is, strictly speaking, no category of the individual. Kierke­ gaard’s early conception of the philosophical role of Socrates is a key to an understanding of his later philosophy of religion. In his Concept of Irony he argued that irony, for Socrates, was “ infinite negativity,” a nihilistic standpoint. This interpretation of Socratic irony (although later revised by Kierkegaard) had a personal significance for Kierke­ gaard since he himself had lived through nihilism, had experienced the realization that nothing is true, nothing is certain, that nothing can be known. I say “ experienced,” since he is not alluding to a purely theoretical nihilism which does not touch the individual, but to an existential encounter with nihilism, an encounter which has profound consequences for the individual. The Concept of Irony is itself, in a sense, an ironical work insofar as Kierkegaard occasionally writes in the Hegelian mode but repudiates what he calls the “ new wisdom ” and remarks: “ as if the Idea’s own movements should come to expression in me.” 1 In this paper it will be argued that Kierkegaard’s analysis of Socrates ’ thought and existence is a covert expression of his own experience of the nihilistic standpoint he attributes to Socrates, that he himself had turned toward the aesthetic sphere of existence and was already attempting in his own thought and experience to overcome the nihilistic stage of existence. The encounter with nihilism was, then, the first ‘ movement ’ in the ‘ dialectic of life,’ the beginning of a reflective, personal existence, the necessary propaedeutic to the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres of existence. The theoretical dissolution of actuality and ideality was the first movement on the road to the phenomenology of the act of faith. The Concept of Irony under­ mines the traditional account of Kierkegaard’s three stages (or spheres) of existence and reveals that Kierkegaard (like Nietzsche and Heideg­ 1. S0ren S o c r a c t e e r s w The Concept of Irony, trans. Lee M. Capel, New York, 19 6 5 , p .1 3 . 193K IERKEGAARD ’ S IRONIC STAGE OF EXISTENCE ger) was concerned with the problem of nihilsm and the transcendence of this ‘ moment ’ in the dialectic of life. THE MEANING OF IRONY Although Kierkegaard is ostensibly concerned with the ‘ concept ’ of irony in the first part of The Concept of Irony, he does not deal with the concept of irony at all. Rather, he provides what he calls a ‘ pheno­ menological ’ description of the existence of Socrates.1 This approach is significant for its obvious anti-Hegelian method of explicating the meaning of a conception or idea (e.g., irony) not in terms of logical analysis but in terms of an individual who is ‘ living through ’ the ironic standpoint. To understand the meaning of irony one does not begin with an abstract analysis of essences, but with the concrete, the existential manifestation of the spirit of irony. Hence, Socrates — as understood by Kierkegaard — shows what irony is ...