Dates: 1813-1855

Nationality: Danish

Unlike some philosophers of the modern period, Søren Kierkegaard did not produce a systematic aesthetics. His writings are nevertheless rich in aesthetic theory and the use of aesthetic categories, such as irony and humor, as well as literary techniques, in the form of pseudonyms and representative figures, that give his authorship a poetic, or artistic, character. Perhaps most renowned for his theoretical differentiations between, and literary characterizations of, three stages, or modes, of human life (the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious) in his writings, winning him the philosophical distinction of being called “the father of existentialism,” Kierkegaard seeks ultimately to show how these dimensions may be unified in human existence through a process of personal striving toward the realization of an artistic wholeness of being, or selfhood, that constitutes, in his view, the goal of human life and art.

Understanding the aesthetic fundamentally in terms of its etymological derivation from the Greek word aisthēsis, or sense perception, Kierkegaard associates the aesthetic stage with an immediate enjoyment of life through the senses, including sensuous enjoyment through poetic, or artistic, products of the creative imagination, and with the refinement of that lifestyle through aesthetic reflection. There is an integral connection in his thought, therefore, between the aesthetic as a stage of life, the creation of artworks as a means of obtaining sensuous enjoyment, and aesthetics as the theory of sensate or artistic representation.

Walsh, Sylvia. “Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 <www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0313>

Kierkegaard presents his pseudonymous authorship as a dialectical progression of existential stages. The first is the aesthetic, which gives way to the ethical, which gives way to the religious. The aesthetic stage of existence is characterized by the following: immersion in sensuous experience; valorization of possibility over actuality; egotism; fragmentation of the subject of experience; nihilistic wielding of irony and scepticism; and flight from boredom.

The figure of the aesthete in the first volume of Either-Or is an ironic portrayal of German romanticism, but it also draws on medieval characters as diverse as Don Juan, Ahasverus (the wandering Jew), and Faust. It finds its most sophisticated form in the author of “The Seducer’s Diary”, the final section of Either-Or. Johannes the seducer is a reflective aesthete, who gains sensuous delight not so much from the act of seduction but from engineering the possibility of seduction. His real aim is the manipulation of people and situations in ways which generate interesting reflections in his own voyeuristic mind. The aesthetic perspective transforms quotidian dullness into a richly poetic world by whatever means it can. Sometimes the reflective aesthete will inject interest into a book by reading only the last third, or into a conversation by provoking a bore into an apoplectic fit so that he can see a bead of sweat form between the bore’s eyes and run down his nose. That is, the aesthete uses artifice, arbitrariness, irony, and wilful imagination to recreate the world in his own image. The prime motivation for the aesthete is the transformation of the boring into the interesting.

This type of aestheticism is criticized from the point of view of ethics. It is seen to be emptily self-serving and escapist. It is a despairing means of avoiding commitment and responsibility. It fails to acknowledge one’s social debt and communal existence. And it is self-deceiving insofar as it substitutes fantasies for actual states of affairs.

But Kierkegaard did not want to abandon aesthetics altogether in favor of the ethical and the religious. A key concept in the Hegelian dialectic, which Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship parodies, is Aufhebung (sublation). In Hegel’s dialectic, when contradictory positions are reconciled in a higher unity (synthesis) they are both annulled and preserved (aufgehoben). Similarly with Kierkegaard’s pseudo-dialectic: the aesthetic and the ethical are both annulled and preserved in their synthesis in the religious stage. As far as the aesthetic stage of existence is concerned what is preserved in the higher religious stage is the sense of infinite possibility made available through the imagination. But this no longer excludes what is actual. Nor is it employed for egotistic ends. Aesthetic irony is transformed into religious humor, and the aesthetic transfiguration of the actual world into the ideal is transformed into the religious transubstantiation of the finite world into an actual reconciliation with the infinite.

McDonald, William. “Søren Kierkegaard.”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). <plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/kierkegaard/>

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