Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard are often grouped together as some of the first thinkers in what would become existential philosophy. However, Nietzsche (who outlived Kierkegaard by decades) likely never encountered the other’s work directly. The differences between them are therefore stark. Although diametrically opposed on religion, both philosophers find some common ground in making the subject the most prescient matter in their works. It is this similarity which leads them into comparable territory – it forces them to reconsider the metaphysical tribulations that were (and still are) ingrained in Western culture, critiquing and dismantling them, all in hopes of giving the individual the philosophical focus it so deservingly needs. Nietzsche arguably does this best since he begins by overturning basic assumptions, leaving nothing unchecked, and then works his way up to the individual and the herd. Thus, although Kierkegaard writes poetically of the self, Nietzsche truly provides existentialism with an all-encompassing critique of contemporary thought by beginning with basal ontology and then moving forward, in an engaging fashion.
I. Ontological Differences and Categorizations of the Self
Kierkegaard does not have a strident ontology of anything but the self. For him, the self is all-encompassing and the most pressing issue. Therefore, he is not concerned with the categorization of “being” in the tradition of Aristotelian thought. Rather, he turns his focus to subjective experience. This is particularly why in Martin Heidegger’s notes on Being and Time he gives Kierkegaard much credit. He writes, “Søren Kierkegaard explicitly seized upon the problem of existence as an existentiell problem, and thought it through in a penetrating fashion” (Perkins, 187). Heidegger recognizes Kierkegaard as the first to establish the self not as a category of thought, but rather as a way of being. In other words, one becomes a subject rather than thinking subjectivity into being. It is on this basis that Kierkegaard largely stays away from abstractions on religion, the self, or society. In the same vein as Nietzsche’s polemics against metaphysics, William Barrett describes Kierkegaard’s skepticism in Irrational Man:
Existence and theory about existence are not one and the same, any more than a printed menu is as effective a form of nourishment as an actual meal. More than that: the possession of a theory about existence may intoxicate the possessor to such a degree that he forgets the need of existence altogether (Barrett, 141).
Kierkegaard was attempting to fight against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the time, which posited that man was merely a victim of social forces – a philosophy where the individual disappears in change, rather than creating the change himself. Whereas many thinkers of his time influenced by Hegel and Kant saw existence as a concept, Kierkegaard realized that “[his] own existence [was] not a matter of speculation to [him], but a reality in which [he was] personally and passionately involved” (Barrett, 145). Therefore, Kierkegaard viewed the categorization of the self as a perversion of subjectivity. Existence is not mirrored as a concept in the mind, it is self-created and self-categorized through the “Either/Or of choice” (Barrett, 145). No metaphysical abstractions will do the self justice – only the subjective choices truly represent it.
Similar to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s conception of “being” is difficult to pinpoint since he is mostly a political writer interested in polemics. Yet, his ontology is the cornerstone of his greater ideas and is therefore necessary to understanding his positions fully. His ontology can thus best be watered down to a kind of opposition to Kantian conceptions of “being.” Kant considers there to be two realms of knowledge regarding an object, that which is phenomenon (i.e. experienced by the senses) and that which is noumenon (i.e. “something that is thought” or “the object of an act of thought”). Thus, Kant differentiates a “thing” from a “thing-it-self” and posits that the latter is not fully knowable since we can only infer from the appearances of phenomena. Kant uses noumena as a way to defend reason and metaphysics by arguing they are a “necessary limitation” since they leave questions of the divine outside of its scope.
For Nietzsche, Kant’s distinction is a meaningless metaphysical construction. A “thing-in-itself” cannot be conceived separate from its appearance, since that would undermine our entire ability to perceive. Noumenon is therefore identical to phenomenon. It is from here that Nietzsche begins to break down Western metaphysics from its dogmatic roots. By eliminating the “metaphysical realm,” Nietzsche inadvertently opens the door to an innumerable amount of questions – if there is no noumenon, if appearance is all we have, then there is no objective ethics, no distinction between metaphysics and science, and no knowledge greater than us. This trail of thought inevitably leads to a form of subjectivity, one which Kierkegaard embraces as the only real truth. Nietzsche pushes this idea to its ultimate conclusion by arguing for a morality beyond good and evil, giving agency to the individual rather than to “objective” categorizations of what one ought to do. It is through his rejection of the noumenon that he affirms life, the subject, and experience as the basis of philosophy itself.
Questions of noumenon for Nietzsche are useless since this reality is the only reality we can conceive of. Discussions on “ideal” or “greater” forms are thus useless in accruing usable knowledge. Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols, “the reasons for which this world has been characterized as apparent are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable… The apparent world is the only one, the true world is merely added by a lie” (Addis, 27). It is here that he accuses Western metaphysics of perpetrating a lie, of creating a “true” world of greater forms that distorts our actual perceivable reality. He goes even further, laying a criticism on Kant’s influence on metaphysics in The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy by contrasting him with Schopenhauer.
Kant clung to the university, subjected himself to governments, remained within the appearance of religious faith, and endured colleagues and students… Schopenhauer [had] no consideration for the scholars’ caste, stands apart, strives for independence of stat and society… wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher (Kaufman, 123).
Therefore, Nietzsche mostly rejected metaphysics as institutionally illegitimate. William Barrett speaks of this in the Irrational Man, arguing that “Nietzsche ridiculed the very notion of Being as one of the most deceptive ghosts spawned by the brains of philosophers, the most general and therefore the emptiest of concepts” (Barrett, 178). Hence, there are no transcendent features of humanity that are always true irrespective of context. Such claims are that which philosophers want to be true since every great philosophy, as Nietzsche writes, “is the personal confession of the author” (Magnus, 216). Therefore, for Nietzsche, Western metaphysics ironically proves his argument for will to power – be it Kant’s a priori arguments for noumena, or Plato’s forms, these metaphysical claims are merely descriptions of what the author wants to see in the world, all to grant him to the power of knowledge, in the hopes of foolishly making the world more recognizable.
Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche value the subject and largely reject metaphysics, which is where they intersect ontologically. Kierkegaard’s position against universals bears resemblance to Nietzsche’s position of perspectivism – that there are many different interpretations, and different perspectives, of a particular truth. He echoes this sentiment in Three Upbuilding Discourses, “When one person sees one thing and another sees something else in the same thing, then the one discovers what the other conceals” (Hong, 59). Therefore, it is through subjective perspectives and the commonality between them that we find truth and fulfillment as individuals, rather than through categorizations and abstractions.
II. Ontology Applied: Consciousness, the Subject, and the Masses
Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both place emphasis on the individual, but apply these emphases differently. Nietzsche is concerned with the will of the individual in social relations and is thus concerned with questions of consciousness that Kierkegaard neglects to mention. He begins this inquiry from his ontology – if there are no metaphysical claims “beyond” human capacities, all that is required is the will for it to be done. It is from here Nietzsche explores consciousness, stemming from his ontological foundations.
He theorizes in the Gay Science that “consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication… consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings” (Solomon, 70). This “net of communication” Nietzsche speaks of can be conceived as a type of organization within an individual himself. In other words, consciousness is necessary to reconcile and communicate competing instincts, drives, desires, and passions. Given all of this burden internally, man is left powerless. Nietzsche writes:
Our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness… as the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress to make himself understood (Solomon, 70).
It is here that Nietzsche’s position on the self becomes clear – we are not a kind of “Platonic essence” or a “Cartesian thinking substance”; we are a product of competing drives and perspectives. He goes further argue a controversial point that cements most men into the herd.
My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature (Solomon, 71).
It from here that man finds himself stuck. Nietzsche describes our “subconscious world [as one of] servant organs working in mutual co-operation and antagonism” (Samuel, 34). We neglect this internal relationship and create a “little tabula rasa of the consciousness” through induced forgetfulness“ to make room again for the new, and above all for the more noble functions and functionaries, room for government, foresight, predetermination” (Samuel, 34). Thus, the creation of structure and the herd requires a kind of forgetfulness that is self-induced.
Kierkegaard fails to properly discuss consciousness in the context of the crowd. He only briefly explores phenomenology in The Concept of Anxiety where he argues that anxiety serves as a means for the mind to induce self-conscious reflection before a choice of either/or. The lack of analysis on consciousness leaves a gap in Kierkegaard’s work – he jumps into analyses of the self without fully establishing his foundations. Nietzsche’s claims, on the other hand, build off each other by philosophically reaching the self from the ground-up rather than assuming certain characteristics of the self and its interaction with the world.
Looking past consciousness, Nietzsche begins to dismantle the herd and its characteristics. He sees it as the main opponent of the individual since it values what does not have value. The herd accepts pessimism and makes value judgments based on fear and peer-approval rather than personal conviction; They take comfort in being in relation to others. For Nietzsche, the herd denies their own will. Similarly, Kierkegaard writes that “a crowd – in its very concept – is untruth, since a crowd either renders the single individual wholly unrepentant and irresponsible, or weakens his responsibility by making it a fraction of his decision” (Solomon, 13). The crowd (or the herd) therefore dissipates responsibility among itself, acting as one unit, but not taking responsibility as one. This creates a dissonance between action and accountability, which Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are correct to be wary of.
III. How Do We Ought to Live?
The question of what we ought to do is a difficult one and both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche treat this question differently. Kierkegaard argues that the leap to faith is necessary reach the religious state where one is personal dialogue with God. It is at this level that the self is actualized and becomes fully authentic in serving a greater subjective purpose. Therefore, the religious stage is beyond living as a mere ethical individual; it suspends the universal ethical for a subjective realization of God’s purpose. Nietzsche, too, suspends the universal ethical, but he does this from a very different philosophical position. Nietzsche’s discussion of ethics is not normative. He is very polemical in his writing and fervent in his criticisms, but he does not prescribe an easy solution to the social ills he diagnoses. He is simply interested in removing constraints, both real and imagined, which prevent individuals from reaching their actual potentiality. He worked to bring philosophy down from divine instruction to more human relations, in the grasp of our will. Kierkegaard, alternatively, wishes for us to subjectively realize this divine instruction rather than have it be commanded to us by others.
Despite not having a normative description of ethics, the point to take away from Nietzsche’s writing is clear – He was for the affirmation of life, to be able to look back on your life and confidently say “once more,” and to be able to celebrate one’s whole life in full. Kierkegaard was for this affirmation, but with strings attached which envelops man into an innumerable amount of paradoxes and inconsistencies. Despite Kierkegaard’s push for subjectivity above all else, he still leaves man’s subjectivity in the presence of God. Despite his desire to be authentic, his argument for the divine still robs the individual of pure autonomy since he is beholden to a greater power beyond himself. Nietzsche would find this to be a perversion of man’s will. Therefore, abandoning the divine as a legitimate argument truly places power back into the hands of the individual by eliminating the unnecessary contradictions Christian theology brings and all the institutional baggage it holds.
IV. The Existential Diagnosis
Being polemical authors, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are both heavily invested in social criticism and vindicating the self against the masses. Kierkegaard identifies these social ills in The Present Age where he eloquently argues against the social excesses of temporary pleasure as a means of coping with existential angst. It is an age of confused spontaneity and misdirection, an “age of advertisement and publicity” where “nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere” (Solomon, 4). It is also an age where the public domineers, leveling passion to the lowest common denominator; “it hinders and stifles all action” (Solomon, 7). Kierkegaard argues that the public is “the most dangerous of all powers and the most insignificant” since one can speak to the whole nation on behalf of all, but yet actually be speaking to no true individual at all.
Nietzsche characterizes his contemporary society as approaching the “advent of nihilism” and Kierkegaard would surely agree. However, they would differ on the reasons behind the cultural malaise that sweeps Europe. Nietzsche would attribute the age of nihilism as a consequence of the death of God. He writes in The Gay Science, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms” (Kaufmann, 126). Nietzsche is arguing that we have exhausted religion as a moral compass and source of meaning, yet the objectivity we derived from the divine we still use foolishly. Kierkegaard would certainly disagree with this characterization, instead arguing that the cultural malaise is due to a lack of true religiosity of the self through institutional Christendom. Here, Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s diagnosis of society can be synthesized to form a more complete picture – the kind of hedonism Kierkegaard describes is one of worry and concern, but it is directly linked to Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism. It is because we are living in the age of nihilism that the present age is so bleak.
Overall, Nietzsche provides a far more nuanced existential critique of society and the limitations imposed on individuals from realizing themselves fully. Kierkegaard sets the foundation for analysis of the self through his assertions, but he fails to build on his ideas. Nietzsche’s thought can be mapped from his ontology, to his definition of consciousness, and then consistently applied to his social criticisms – Kierkegaard fails to create this basis and instead places the ideal individual in the hands of God. Inadvertently, Nietzsche pokes holes into Kierkegaard’s dependence on the divine through his anti-Christian rhetoric, during which he makes the case that the divine is yet another limitation on self-realization. Therefore, Kierkegaard – although passionate and refined in his interpretation of God – fails to capture the spirit of individuality fully, since it is constantly being anchored in Christian imagery. Nietzsche breaks all assumptions, questioning the very basis of Western though, forcing us to start from scratch and affirm life for what it is, in all its contradictions and absurdities.
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