Man’s leap to faith; A summary of Søren Kierkegaard’s “Concept of Anxiety” (1844)

Image <– Modern day Søren.

Fathering Existential philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard’s emphatic dogmatism, coupled with his graceful plunge into the abyss of ontological inquiry, brought about the issue of orienting one’s psychological state with the infinite abyss of possibilities that constitutes life. “The Concept of Anxiety” (1844) elucidates the psychological issue of anxiety, which man experiences while living in a state of uncontrollable possibility. Kierkegaard interplays the dogmatism of original sin with the concept of anxiety, as outlined by the work’s subtitle, “A simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin.” According to Kierkegaard, hereditary sin stabilizes the psychological state of anxiety through man’s concern to live righteously (that is, without sin) which then necessitates faith, as a sort of map on how to navigate through the abyss appropriately.

Kierkegaard posits that anxiety preempted the original sin, insofar as God told Adam to not pick the apple from the tree, which manifested the existence of either “good” or “evil” in the abyss of possibility. Dogmatic assumption of original sin manifests as both an issue of metaphysical nature, and as psychological experience of anxiety,

“If sin is dealt with in psychology, the mood becomes that of persistent observation…. Sin does not properly belong in any science, but it is the subject of a sermon, in which the single individual speaks as the single individual to the single individual.” (14)

Kierkegaard couples dogmatism and psychology, as he wishes to describe the psychological effects of dogmatism, beginning with Adam’s original sin. Adam’s predicament of freedom of choice yielded anxiety, surrounding the possibility of sin, for the eternity of humanity. Picking the apple represented the plunge into an abyss of sinfulness, which Kierkegaard represents as ‘the fall’, whereby sin, and the subsequent guilt, permeated the eternity of humanity with hereditary sin.

‘The fall’, being the moment of the plunge into the abyss of sin, is realized by Kierkegaard as the ‘qualitative leap’ (into sin). This leap happens at the moment when freedom from guilt is abandoned, and sinfulness is introduced. Kierkegaard recognizes the specific statement of Genisis that sin was deposited into the world at that very moment. Emphasis on the moment as a piece of time is emphasized by this, and also by Kierkegaard,

“Thus sin comes into the world as the sudden, i. e., by a leap; but this leap also posits the quality and is presupposed by the quality and the quality by the leap.” (31)

Exposition of this leap as ‘qualitative’ is directly in opposition to Kierkegaard’s quantitative understanding of sin, wherein sin is realized in it’s eternity, as it has compounded hereditarily since the original sin. Compounded sin also substantiates the exponential growth of guilt, which culminates as objective anxiety. Kierkegaard represents the growth of objective anxiety through the sin of lustfulness during the process of reproduction. How can man not be guilty, when conceived through sin? Kierkegaard further conceptualizes “good” and “evil” as presupposed and inescapable,

“When sin is posited in the particular individual by the qualitative leap, the difference between good and evil is also posited… We have said what we again repeat, that sin presupposes itself.” (112)

Despite the inability to control one’s own conception, and therefore the inability to be born in freedom from sin, Kierkegaard asserts that freedom to choose further sinfulness is not arbitrary. Hence, Kierkegaard says, “To speak of good and evil as the objects of freedom finitizes both freedom and the concepts of good and evil.” (124) In this, he means that freedom is multifaceted; Choice between “good” and “evil” differentiate freedom of choice from free will. Because of man’s objective anxiety about sin, due to it’s presupposition, man is willed towards finding the path towards righteousness. Limitation of free will uncovers the daunting actuality of man’s finitude in the face of infinite abyss of possibility. Kierkegaard describes the “anxiety in creation,” as the “Entrapment in the infinitude of possibility” (80).

As man stands, facing the plunge into the abyss of possible sin, the overwhelming sensation of finitude is described by Kierkegaard as “dizziness” (61). Kierkegaard frames the individual’s ‘dizziness’ (apropos the infinity of possibilities of existence) as a “gathering of possibilities of self” (78). Generation of ‘self’ is the process, beginning with a transition from speculation of possibilities, to anxiety about those possibilities, to the actuality of decision and the plunge in to the abyss. Kierkegaard delineates the transition as the momentary acquisition of earnestness to one’s self.  Kierkegaard claims that the present, as thought about in the conventional sense, does not really exist. If time is a passing by of events, then the present is simply a dividing line between the past and future that cannot be rigidly defined to encompass a definite amount of time. It is the reference point that time progresses past. This demonstrates the notion that the present is a period in which transition may occur. Kierkegaard writes about the perspective of self in transition,

“inwardness is precisely the fountain that springs up unto eternal life, and what issues from this fountain is precisely earnestness.” (142)

This tells us that to grasp the possibility of the abyss, we must seek inwardness, and to reach inwardness we must develop earnestness. Earnestness is a special connection between self-consciousness and feeling. Being earnest requires an honest awareness of our true selves. There is a type of self-reflection involved, but it is strictly in a spiritual sense, and it concerns action, not contemplation. Earnestness allows original thought and feeling to precede actions undertaken in the temporal world; this connects one’s actions to spiritual possibility and prevents finite concerns from overwhelming one’s spiritual growth.

Inwardness plus the earnestness that it entails set the stage for a transition into faith. Kierkegaard does not describe that leap, but he provides an understanding of how anxiety can be dealt with in a positive manner that will allow that next leap. Inwardness permits one to accept the natural and inextricable place that anxiety occupies in human life and then use it to spiritual advantage.

Kierkegaard’s conception of earnestness as the individual’s path towards righteousness, in opposition to the alternative “evil”, presupposes the necessity for man to have faith in prevailing over evil. Faith is posited by the individual’s ability to overcome the psychological state of anxiety, and live righteously both because of and in spite of hereditary sin. Without faith in the ability to be righteous, man would be stuck in an anxiety limbo. Man’s leap to faith is necessitated by man’s need to supplement the psychological concept of anxiety and the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin.