This weekend I finished Kierkegaard’s Either / Or. A major theme in the ethical ‘Or’ of Either / Or is the role of choice.
But what is it I choose? Is it this thing or that? No, for I choose absolutely, and the absoluteness of my choice is expressed precisely by the fact that I have not chosen to choose this or that. I choose the absolute. And what is the absolute? It is I myself in my eternal validity. Anything else but myself I never can choose as the absolute, for if I choose something else, I choose it as a finite thing and so do not choose it absolutely. Even the Jew who chose God did not choose it absolutely, for he chose, indeed, the absolute, but did not choose it absolutely, and thereby it ceased to be the absolute and became a finite thing.
. . .
This self which he then chooses is infinitely concrete, for it is in fact himself, and yet it is absolutely distinct form his former self, for he has chosen it absolutely. This self did not exist previously, for it came into existence by means of the choice, and yet it did exist, for it was in fact ‘himself.’
In this case choice performs at one and the same time the two dialectical movements: that which is chosen does not exist and comes into existence with the choice; that which is chosen exists , otherwise there would not be a choice.
This strikes me as a tremendously pivotal move in Kierkegaard’s work. The notion of ‘self’ will be picked up again with greater rigour in The Sickness Unto Death but here we must also remember that Kierkegaard is still trying to awaken, to disturb, to move. These are not his ‘direct’ religious writings. It is easy to see that as Kierkegaard’s work was slowly translated into German and English that these sort of passages were developed into the type of ‘individualism’ that existentialism became known for. However, even in this section Kierkegaard has no interest in the unique individual instead Kierkegaard demands the dialectic of the individual which is both absolutely singular and universal. In following page he writes,
Therefore it requires courage for a man to choose himself; for at the very time when it seems that isolates himself most thoroughly he is most thoroughly absorbed in the root by which he is connected with the whole.
This then culminates not in the maxim of ‘knowing yourself’ but in the admonishment to ‘choose yourself’. Though he admits if he wanted to be clever he would say that we must ‘know’ ourselves as Adam knew Eve.
By the individual’s intercourse with himself he impregnates himself and brings himself to birth.
I’ll let my distinguished readers unpack that one.