Tag Archives: Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard’s Critique of Hegel. Existentialist Ethics versus Hegel’s Sittlichkeit in the Institutions of Civil Society of the State

Kierkegaard establishes this problem in his treatise, The Concept of Irony.[1]  Kierkegaard and Hegel are in agreement that Socrates is the founder of morality; insofar as Socrates, through irony, creates a distanced relationship to the substantive ethical order in the Athenian city-state, and they both ascribe this as having a world-historical significance (Kierkegaard SV 1, 248 ff).[2]  However, their assessment is different; for Hegel, Socrates is a tragic hero, because his fate – being executed in Athens – is determined by a collision between two equally worthy principles.  He is talking about a collision between abstract right in the Athenian city-state and subjective self?determination, as it is expressed in Socrates’ ironic relationship to the substantive ethical order of the city-state.  A mediation or reconciliation is lacking between these two relationships.  In other words, the Athenian city-state lacked an ethical order to mediate between objective right and subjective sentiment.  Hegel sees Socrates as the first person to form a bridge between abstract right and the arena of morality, because he validates subjectivity.  Socrates brings the individual to the point that he no longer exclusively acts from fear of the law but is conscious of why he is acting.  According to Kierkegaard, this is  “the principle of subjective freedom” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 252; Kierkegaard 1965: 251).

Further, according to Kierkegaard, the question is the extent to which Hegel succeeded in demonstrating that Socrates had a positive understanding of the principle of subjective freedom or whether Socrates had an exclusively negative understanding of this principle (Kierkegaard SV 1, 252).

From Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Kierkegaard refers in this context to Hegel’s statement that Socrates advances the proposition in a conversation with Xenophon that it is the just who obey the laws, claiming against the objection that this cannot be absolute, since people and rulers often change them, that those who conduct war also wind up concluding with peace (Hegel 1971a: 478).  According to Hegel, Socrates is referring to the fact that it is the best and happiest state in which citizens are of one mind and obey the laws. According to Kierkegaard, in this context Hegel sees an affirmative content in Socrates (Kierkegaard SV 1, 253).

It is at this point that Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s views on Socrates becomes relevant.  He writes: “But this, as anyone can see, is a negative determination: it is negative towards the established [Bestaaende] as well as negative towards that deeper positivity, that which conditions both negatively and speculatively” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 250; Kierkegaard 1965: 249).  Socrates denied the universal substantive ethical order of the Athenian city-state, but he could not sublate this subjective appropriation of the law into a new universal, subjectively founded ethical order, a Sittlichkeit, in the city-state.

According to Kierkegaard, if Socrates was unable to create a new positive relationship to the law, it is because he could not realize his standpoint and thus could not reach the point at which he arrives, namely, the good in and for itself.  Socrates permits the established to endure [lader det bestående bestå], and the positive does not follow upon his infinite negation of the established –, thus his inquiry into its validity – but follows a positivity preceding it, namely, what was established prior to the negation or his inquiry (Kierkegaard SV 1, 253).  Socrates has gone beyond “immediate Hellenism”, insofar as he is interested in the laws in his reflection and takes them out of their immediate givenness.  But this is only a feigned movement and in no way an authentic social movement.  Therefore, the positive relationship to the law mentioned can be used as documentation for the fact that Socrates did not reach a positive determination of what is moral.

According to Kierkegaard, Hegel should have attended to the fact that Socrates only made universally applicable the negative and thus indeterminate.  Kierkegaard writes: “For this constriction of the universal to be stable and not accidental, for the universal to become known in its determinateness, however, is only possible in a total system of actuality.  But this is what Socrates lacks.  He negated the state without ever arriving again at the higher form of the state wherein infinity is affirmed, as he negatively required.” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 254; Kierkegaard 1965: 253).  This somewhat surprising quotation must be seen as an expression of how deeply Kierkegaard was still anchored in Hegel’s way of thinking, even as he is in the process of going beyond it.  For what he says is what Hegel tries to implement in his Philosophy of Right (1955) with the introduction of the substantive ethical order, Sittlichkeit, as a mediation between personal morality and the law.  At the same time, Kierkegaard is on his way somewhere else, since he says that Socrates may very well be called the founder of morality in the sense in which Hegel takes it, and that Socrates’ standpoint “could still have been irony” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 254; Kierkegaard 1965: 253).  If what is moral is related to the negatively free subject, the morally good can only be understood as an infinite negativity.  But it is clear that the former is a positively free subject, who can have the good as the infinitely positive as his task and realize it in practice.  The negative cannot be connected with any seriousness, and the same holds true of the negatively free subject, which according to Kierkegaard is also Hegel’s view.  True seriousness or the positively good is only possible in a totality, wherein the subject no longer arbitrarily determines himself at each moment to continue his experiment, where he feels that the task is not something he set for himself, but as something which has been set for him (Kierkegaard SV 1, 254; Kierkegaard 1965: 254).

It is striking how close Kierkegaard is to Hegel, even as he is in the process of surpassing him.  He writes: “It is essentially here that the difficulty with Hegel’s conception of Socrates lies, namely, the attempt he has constantly made to show how Socrates has conceived the good.  But what is even worse, so it seems to me, is that the direction of the current in Socrates’ life is not faithfully maintained.  The movement in Socrates is to come to the good.  His significance for the development of the world is to arrive at this (not at one point to have arrived at this).  His significance for his contemporaries is that they arrived at this.” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 255; Kierkegaard 1965: 254).

Thus, according to Kierkegaard, Hegel is correct that Socrates was the founder of morality, insofar as through his inquiry he formed the distance of negativity to the given social order in the Athenian city-state, but Hegel lacks the vision to see that Socrates could do no more.  Socrates could only abstractly make the good a theme as a value in itself, unconnected to the given social order; but according to Kierkegaard, he could not return from this movement of negativity and point out what the abstract good in and of itself consisted of as a concrete, and actual limited social order or Ethical Life in the city-state.

Kierkegaard summarizes this beautifully: “As Charon ferried men over from the fullness of life to the somber land of the underworld, and in order that his shallow barque might not be overburdened made the voyagers divest themselves of all the manifest determinations of the concrete life: titles, honours, purples, great speeches, sorrows, and tribulations, etc., so that only the pure man remains, so also Socrates ferried the individual from reality over to ideality, and ideal infinity, as infinite negativity, became the nothingness into which he made the whole manifold of reality disappear” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 255-256; Kierkegaard 1965: 255).

Kierkegaard concludes on this basis that Socrates had the concept of the absolute in the form of nothingness.  “Actuality, by means of the absolute, became nothingness, but the absolute was in turn nothing” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 256).  Socrates could maintain this radical negativity, according to Kierkegaard, because he saw himself as “a divine missionary” and it is through this that Socrates becomes a world-historical individuality, insofar as it is characteristic of world-historical individualities that their whole life belongs to the world and they have nothing for themselves.  Therefore, according to Kierkegaard, the world has even more to thank them for (Kierkegaard SV 1, 256).

Here the relationship between Hegel’s and Kierkegaard’s interpretations is pushed to the extreme, since Kierkegaard ascribes his interpretation of Socrates to Hegel’s whole world-historical perspective and movement, even as he demolishes this point of view from within and points towards a different understanding of morality than that we encounter in Hegel.  Whereas Hegel’s interpretation of Socrates points towards the emergence of morality in order then to embed it in another context – namely in The Philosophy of Right (1955) – as a moment in the Ethical Life of the state, Kierkegaard points towards the divine dimension and mission in Socrates’ works, which, according to him, cannot be redeemed but had to remain as a radical negativity, however it would form the movement that was to be fulfilled by another world-historical individual, namely, Jesus of Nazareth.  Hegel also had an eye for this second world-historical individuality, but Hegel’s perspective is once again historical mediation.  Whereas Kierkegaard, through many mediations scattered throughout his entire work, ultimately points towards Jesus of Nazareth as a world-historical individuality and event, Hegel points to the world-historical mediation of this individuality and event, as it is expressed in the Protestant form of Christianity. The beautiful thing about Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel is that he attempts to explode Hegel’s world-historical perspective from within, with a reference to the fact that we still encounter the world spirit in Ur-Christianity, rather than in cultural Christianity.  There is an amazing radicality in this critique, because it turns the movement of Hegel’s world-historical spirit inside out while still maintaining the entirety of Hegel’s world-historical perspective.

From this perspective, the decisive question becomes whether Kierkegaard can find his way back and thereby qualify a morality, not to speak of an Ethical Life, or whether he becomes the victim of his own critique of Socrates as radical negativity and of Hegel as a world-historical systematic thinker who neglects individuality as a moment in the movement of the world spirit.

If we look at the whole of Kierkegaard’s writings, there is a running theme that the ethical relationship to another human being or morality is mediated through Christianity, insofar as the relationship to another person is mediated through one’s relationship to God.[3]  The ethical passes through the relationship to God to grapple with the individual’s relationship to himself or herself, i.e., as a demand to be oneself in relation to God, and the individual’s relationship to other human beings, understood as a demand to perform works of love.[4]  In the relationship to God, love becomes the fundamental determinative essence of the individual human being.  The ethical is made applicable in the social insofar as the individual encounters the other person in a social relationship.

However, the Ethical Life may not be derived from the ethical demand to care for one’s fellow human beings.  Kierkegaard’s project is to clarify the independent meaning of the ethical for individuals in relation to themselves and their fellow human beings as mediated through the relationship to God in contrast to the historically determined and thus contingent Ethical Life in a given society.  The demand to love is an unconditional demand.  Thereby, Ethical Life is conditional and contingent.[5]

According to Kierkegaard, there is no mediation between the ethical and Ethical Life, and Kierkegaard sees it as his mission to make this distinction more precise.[6]  The ethical is always tied to an immediate relationship to God, so that it is mediated through the actualization of Ur-Christianity.  The ethical demand could be said to be bound to the event of Christ, whereby its entire historical mediation in cultural Christianity is, so to speak, skipped over as a veiling of the original event of Christ.[7]

For Kierkegaard, it is a matter of uncovering the ethical demand’s special characteristics in the original Ur-Christianity, as this relationship has become veiled through Ethical Life, since it was formed through cultural Christianity.  In this way, Kierkegaard’s project may be said to be diametrically opposite to Hegel’s. Since, Hegel’s project is to account for the ethical’s mediation in Ethical Life as mediated through cultural Christianity.[8]

Against this background, it is clear that Kierkegaard could not see any possibility for creating a mediation between the ethical and Ethical Life.  It would conflict with the entire intent of his project.  Thus, in Kierkegaard, Ethical Life by necessity appears as a contingent historical relationship.  No mediation is possible, and any attempt to create mediation only veils the special character of the ethical.  According to Kierkegaard, this is also true of the mediation that Hegel describes in his Philosophy of Right between morality and Ethical Life.

It is also here that Kierkegaard’s significance in relationship to Hegel may be found.  The ethical is deemed to be something independent, which does not only have meaning as mediation with respect to Ethical Life.  According to Kierkegaard, the bifurcation in modern society cannot be eradicated, and it is not desirable to try to overcome it.  As it is said in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, there cannot be “a conclusion or transition from the ethical to something non-ethical” (Kierkegaard SV 9,112; Kierkegaard 1968: 121).  This would only lead to, as it is said in The Present Age that the ethical is destroyed in the leveling of the ethical relationship (SV 14, 78).

On the other hand, Hegel’s problem of the mediation between morality and Ethical Life remains as an important problem in modern society.  Kierkegaard’s understanding of the ethical may have validity in the individual’s immediate relationship to himself and his fellow human being.  But if the ethical cannot be mediated in an Ethical Life, Ethical Life is decoupled from the ethical as an independent contingent relationship, which is defenseless against arbitrary institutional power.  This will, as Hegel says in his Philosophy of Right, lead to an extreme loss of Ethical Life, ‘Extreme verlorenen Sittlichkeit’ (§184).

Upon deeper reflection, in a society where there is an extreme loss of Ethical Life or Sittlichkeit, the question is whether there is room for ethical action, which Kierkegaard speaks of. Kierkegaard says that love cannot depend on pre-ordained social relations. He may be right with respect to the immediate relationship between human beings. But as soon as an action is mediated through an institution, social relationships emerge, and Ethical Life steps in as something decisive that is also determinative of the immediate relationship between human beings. Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel bypasses Hegel’s important problem of whether it is possible to found an ethical order in modern society. Hegel’s problem with respect to the basis of an Ethical Life, Sittlichkeit, remains, even after Kierkegaard’s critique as an important problem.




Hegel, G.W.F. (1955), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Philosophische Biblio­thek Band 124a, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1971a), Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie I, Werke Band 18, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 1), Om Begrebet Ironi, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 1, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 2), Enten – Eller, Første Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 2, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 3), Enten – Eller, Andet Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 3, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 4), Atten opbyggelige Taler, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 4, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 6), Tre Taler ved tænkte Leiligheder, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 6, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 7), Stadier paa Livets Vei, Første Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 7, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 8), Stadier paa Livets Vei, Andet Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 8, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 9), Afsluttende uvidenskabeligt efterskrift til de philosophiske smuler, Første Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 9, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 10), Afsluttende uvidenskabeligt efterskrift til de philosophiske smuler, Andet Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 10, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 11), Opbyggelige Taler i forskjellig Aand, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 11, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 12), Kjerlighedens Gjerninger, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 12, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 13), Christelige Taler, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 13, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 14), En literair anmeldelse, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 14, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 15), Sygdommen til Døden, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 15, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 16), Indøvelse i Christendom, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 16, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), En opbyggelig Tale, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), To Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), Til Selvprøvelse, Samtiden anbefalet, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), Dømmer selv!, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 18), Bladartikler, der staar i Forhold til »Forfatterskabet«, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 18, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 18), Om min Forfatter-Virksomhed, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 18, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 18), Synspunkter for min Forfatter-Virksomhed, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 18, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 19), Bladartikler 1854-55, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker Bladartikler 1854-55, vol. 19, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 19), Øjeblikket, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker Bladartikler 1854-55, vol. 19, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (1965), The Concept of Irony, trans. by Lee M. Capel, Indiana Univ. Press, Bloomington & London 1965.

Kierkegaard, Søren (1968), Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by David F. Swenson & Walter Lowrie, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton 1968.

Kierkegaard, Søren (1983), Fear and Trembling, trans. and ed. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton 1983.

Løgstrup, K.E. (1967), Opgør med Kierkegaard, Gyldendal, Copenhagen.

Stewart, Jon (2003), Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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[1] In my discussion of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, I take my point of departure in the young Kierkegaard’s dissertation On the Concept of Irony, because the young Kierkegaard was so influenced by Hegel’s philosophy during this period that it constitutes a critique of Hegel’s spirit. See Marc Taylor’s treatise on Kierkegaard’s relationship to Hegel, Journeys to Selfhood. Hegel & Kierkegaard (Taylor 1980: 8 ff). H.C. Wind in Kierkegaard og det historiske [Kierkegaard and the Historical] has a similar approach to the understanding of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel. Wind believes with the same justification that one must begin with the young Kierkegaard rather than the mature Kierkegaard, who has separated himself to a great degree from the Hegelian influence. Wind writes: If a Dane wanted to know a little about Hegel – but preferably without having to deal with the man himself – they could easily go to Kierkegaard.  Not the Kierkegaard who has a formidable critique of Hegel in the Postscript and countless other places, but the author of his dissertation On the Concept of Irony. In the foregoing, I […] have upgraded Kierkegaard’s early work, against the master’s own estimation; I have also used the dissertation for a critical consideration of the mature thinker’s real work” (Wind 2001: 27; 37). This view is supported by Jon Stewart in his major new treatise, Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Stewart 2003). It is Stewart’s view that throughout Kierkegaard’s writings, there is a strong influence from Hegel’s philosophy.  In this connection, Stewart divides Kierkegaard’s works into three periods, stating that the influence, not surprisingly, is strongest in Kierkegaard’s early writings (Stewart 2003: 32 ff).


[2] This has been discussed, among others, by Pia Søltoft in Svimmelhedens etik [The Ethics of Giddiness] (Søltoft 2000, 127 ff).


[3] In this context, I look at the whole of Kierkegaard’s writings from this perspective, since it is Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel and Kierkegaard’s relation to Hegel that has my interest.  Thus, it is this particular problem I will examine in Kierkegaard’s work. Therefore, like H.C. Wind, I also place the primary emphasis on the problem as formulated in Kierkegaard’s early writings and use this as the guiding theme for my broader understanding of Kierkegaard’s work. As a matter of form, I note that an internal theological reading of Kierkegaard’s work would have to be done in a different way.  Here, the hermeneutic approach would have to be different.  However, this is not my task.  I make reference in this context to K. E. Løgstrup’s Opgør med Kierkegaard [Critique of Kierkegaard] (Løgstrup 1967), in which Løgstrup, from a completely different perspective, undertakes a very decided reading of Kierkegaard, which according to Løgstrup, also bypasses a number of other problems with which Kierkegaard has also been occupied. In his critique of Kierkegaard, Løgstrup claims that it is through the experience of love in the encounter with another person that we come to understand love and, thus, our relationship with God expounded in the Gospels.  In Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Christianity, the relationship with God is prior to love of one’s neighbor; in Løgstrup’s phenomenological interpretation of the essence of Christianity, the encounter with the other person is prior to the relationship of faith.  This is a theological contradiction outside the framework of this treatise. Løgstrup writes:

In my critique of Kierkegaard, I am only interested in the tendencies and consequences of his understanding of Christianity, and not in what he said in his other discourses.  He said quite a bit along the way which he later abandoned and much that was at cross purposes with the driving themes in his thought.  I ignore these and leave them to those who are convinced that he is the only Church Father and read him for their own edification.  I am interested in the question: what is Christianity as understood controversially.  For this reason, I do not stick too closely to Kierkegaard but also include the views of Jaspers and Sartre in the discussion” (Løgstrup 1967: 9). Clearly, a great classic opus such as Kierkegaard’s cannot be reduced to a single perspective.  It is always possible from a hermeneutic point of view to take many different perspectives on great classical works.  This is precisely what makes them classics, as Wind also notes (Wind 2001: 37).


[4] The individual can only become himself in a relationship with God.  Kierkegaard analyzes the psychological path to the relationship to God in Sickness Unto Death (Kierkegaard SV 15). In the relationship to God, there is a demand for works of love.  This is stated, inter alia, in Works of Love (SV 12), in the speeches and sermons in Christian Discourses (SV 13), An Edifying Discourse (SV 17), Two Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (SV 17), For Self-Examination (SV 17) and Judge for Yourself! (SV 17), and in the edifying discourses to ”whom I with pleasure and gratitude call my reader,” Eighteen Edifying Discourses (SV 4:13; 55; 101; 73; 209; 269), Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (SV 6: 245), and Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (SV 11: 13; 145).


[5] It is Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel in Fear and Trembling that the individual in the unconditional relationship with God is placed above the universal.  Kierkegaard writes:

“The ethical as such is the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times.  It rests immanent in itself, has nothing outside itself that is its telos [end, purpose] but is itself the telos for everything outside it, and when the ethical has absorbed this into itself, it does not go any further.  The single individual, sensately and psychically qualified in immediacy is the individual who has his telos in the universal, and it is his ethical task continually to express himself in this, to annul his singularity in order to become the universal.  As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal.  Every time the single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in a spiritual trial [Anfægtelse], from which he can work himself only by repentantly surrendering as the single individual in the universal.  If this is the highest thing that can be said of man and his existence, then the ethical has the same nature as a person’s eternal salvation, which is his telos, forevermore and at all times, since it would be a contradiction for this to be capable of being surrendered (that is, teleologically suspended), because as soon as this is suspended it is relinquished, whereas that which is suspended is not relinquished but is preserved in the higher, which is its telos. If this is the case, then Hegel is right in ‘The Good and the Conscience,’ where he qualifies man only as the individual and considers this qualification as a ‘moral form of evil’ (see especially The Philosophy of Right) [Hegel, Philosophy of Right 1955: § 139 ff.], which must be sublated [ophævet, aufgehoben] in the teleology of the moral in such a way that the single individual who remains in that stage either sins or is immersed in spiritual trial.  But Hegel is wrong in speaking about faith; he is wrong in not protesting loudly and clearly against Abraham’s enjoying honor and glory as a father of faith when he ought to be sent back to a lower court and shown up as a murderer. Faith is namely this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal – yet, please note, in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that after having been in the universal he as the single individual isolates himself as higher than the universal.  If this is not faith, then Abraham is lost, then faith has never existed in the world precisely because it has always existed.  For if the ethical – that is, social morality – is the highest and if there is in a person no residual incommensurability inn some way such that this incommensurability is not evil (i.e., the single individual, who is to be expressed in the universal), then no categories are needed other than what Greek philosophy had or what can be deduced from them by consistent thought.  Hegel should not have concealed this, for, after all, he had studied Greek philosophy.”  (Kierkegaard SV 5: 51-52; Kierkegaard 1983: 54-55).


[6] It can be debated whether Kierkegaard even has a concept of Sittlichkeit. At any rate, Kierkegaard does not have a concept of Ethical Life as we find it in Hegel. In Hegel, the ethical is developed as an ethical relationship in the institutions of society – the family, civil society and the state.  However, Kierkegaard only grapples with the development of the ethical in marriage, as seen in the contrast with the aesthetic view of life.  Kierkegaard discusses this in Either – Or (SV 2 & 3) and in Stages on Life’s Way (SV 7 & 8). According to Hegel in The Philosophy of Right, marriage is an ethical relationship between two people (§161-168). Hegel speaks here of the institution of marriage as an immediate ethical relationship (“das unmittelbare sittliche Verhältnis”), which is borne, first, by the natural life-process and then transformed spiritually into self-conscious love (§161). In its way, this is the same view we encounter in Kierkegaard. There is an agreement between the ethical in Kierkegaard and the moral in Hegel understood as “das unmittelbarer sittliche Verhältnis”. But, there, the waters are parted. Kierkegaard does not have any independent interest in how marriage is developed into a family. Kierkegaard focuses on the immediate in marriage, which is the obligatory ethical relationship as a contrast and critique of the aesthetic view.  Kierkegaard is interested in a critique of Don Juan in Either – Or, not in marriage itself.  The ethical becomes in this manner a stage in life’s way in which a personal relationship of faith is the final religious stage. Hegel also reflects upon marriage  in its immediate meaning which we also find in Kierkegaard. There is also in  Hegel a personally obligatory relationship that is entered into freely and can, therefore, also be dissolved, ”once [the spouses’] dispositions and actions have become hostile and contrary” (§176). But this is not what is important, according to Hegel.  Rather, it is to be mentioned in order to show that Hegel also reflects upon the limited relationship we encounter in Kierkegaard.

The important thing for Hegel is that the spontaneous ethical relationship between the spouses is developed as an ethical relationship in the family as an institution.  A distinction must also be drawn, according to Hegel between marriage as an ethical relationship between two persons and the family as an institution founded when the spouses’ freely-given affection bears fruit in the child. Hegel writes: “In den Kindern wird die Einheit der Ehe, welche als substantiell nur Innigkeit und Gesinnung, als existierend aber in den beiden Subjekten gesondert ist, als Einheit selbst eine für sich seiende Existenz und Gegenstand, den sie als ihre Liebe, als ihr substantielles Dasein, lieben“ (§173). According to Hegel, it is not until a child is born and the parents hereafter have a special love for the child, that the unity of immediate Ethical Life takes an independent form and, therefore, according to Hegel, it is here that the family in a true sense is founded in marriage and there is a true or substantial Ethical Life.  Kierkegaard never gets that far – and he never gets that far, because he would not thereby be able to move toward his next stage, i.e., religion, which is his real problem. On the other hand, the interesting thing about Hegel is that he thinks about the existential relationship as an existential relationship in Ethical Life. This is distinctly demonstrated in the way that Hegel not only discusses an ethical foundation of marriage in the family.  He also speaks about an ethical dissolution of the family, when he writes: Die sittliche Au?ösung der Familie liegt darin, daß die Kinder zur freien Persönlichkeit erzogen, in der Volljährigkeit anerkannt werden, als rechtliche Personen und fähig zu sein, teils eigenes freies Eigentum zu haben, teils eigene Familien zu stiften (§77).”

The Ethical Life in the family, thus, has its limit and the limit is “the free personality“, which in the first instance enters into a relation with the Other in the family and then in a multiplicity of relations with others in civil society, which Hegel then defines as the free personality’s “second family“ (§238 ff; §252). On this basis, it is my view that Kierkegaard does not have a true concept of Sittlichkeit or, at any rate, it is incredibly weak in relation to the concept of Ethical Life to which we are introduced in Hegel. This does not mean that Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel can be ignored.  The important thing for Kierkegaard is to maintain that subjective freedom cannot be mediated without being destroyed and that the institutions of civil society, therefore, cannot have a primateship in relation to subjective freedom.  This is a paradox for which Hegel also had an eye, even though he could not provide a satisfactory solution to the paradox.  In recent years, there has been an interest in the meaning of the ethical in Kierkegaard’s work. In this connection, two works have been published that concentrate particularly on this problem.  They are Pia Søltoft’s Svimmelhedens Etik[The Ethics of Giddiness] (Søltoft 2000) and Wenche Marit Quist’s Den enkelte og det mellemmenneskelige – den etiske betydning af det mellemmenneskelige forhold hos Søren Kierkegaard [The Individual and his Relation to the Other – Kierkegaard’s Interpretation of the Ethical Significance of the Individual’s Relation to the Other] (Quist 2000), both of which indirectly confirm my analysis that Kierkegaard does not have a true concept of Sittlichkeit, but only a concept of ethics. In their analysis, the ethical in Kierkegaard is expounded only in relation to the Other. 


[7] Kierkegaard discusses this problem in Training in Christianity. Kierkegaard speaks of becoming contemporary with Christ. Kierkegaard writes: “If thou canst not prevail upon thyself to become a Christian in the situation of contemporaneousness with Him, or if He in the situation of contemporaneousness cannot move thee and draw thee to Himself – then thou wilt never become a Christian.  Thou mayest honor, praise, thank, and reward with all worldly goods him who maketh thee believe thou nevertheless art a Christian – but he deceiveth thee.  Thou mightest count thyself fortunate if thou wert not contemporary with anyone who dared to say this; thou canst become exasperated to frenzy at the torture, like the sting of the ‘gadfly,’ of being contemporary with one who says it.  In the first case thou are deceived; in the second, thou has at least heard the truth” (Kierkegaard SV 16: 71, trans. by Walter Lowrie).


[8] The primary opposition between Kierkegaard and Hegel can be conceptualized as the opposition between Ur-Christianity and cultural Christianity.  In my interpretation of Hegel, it is Christianity that draws the decisive distinction between antiquity and modern times.  It is the Holy Spirit, theologically understood, that in Hegel’s philosophical interpretation with its many cultural, historical mediations is the real force in the World Spirit, which breaks through in modernity.  If I write that it is the Holy Spirit, theologically understood, and not Christianity, that breaks through, it is to indicate that Hegel is also quite clear about the fact that, theologically, there is a distinction between the event of Christ as a religious and existential relationship and Christianity as a cultural and historical relationship.  In Hegel’s view, there would not have been any cultural Christianity, if there were not also an ur-Christianity. Hegel also notes that Ur-Christianity can be a religious, an existential and a theological determination, which must be seen together with the event of Christ, and a historical determination of early Christianity and that it is the first definition that in Hegel’s idealistic philosophy is decisive for the second.  That is, since Luther, the fundamental understanding in Protestant theology upon which Hegel builds. The question is whether the cultural mediation of Christianity ultimately stands in the way of the religious and existential relationship.  This is Kierkegaard’s view. By contrast, we have Hegel’s view that the religious and existential relationship can only be mediated through the cultural relationship in the institutions of modern society as an ethical relationship.  According to Hegel, it is the Church’s task as an institution to keep this mediation alive as a cultivation of the Spirit.  But for Kierkegaard, this mediation becomes a deception that stands in the way of the religious and existential relationship. Kierkegaard summarizes his work at the end of the 1840s in, respectively, Bladartikler, der staar i Forhold til »Forfatterskabet« [Articles Relating to My “Authorship”] (SV 18), On My Activity as a Writer (SV 18) and The Point of View for My Work as an Author (SV 18) in an attempt to mediate this message “indirectly”. It is also during this period that Kierkegaard in Bladartikler 1854-55 (SV 19) and in his periodical Øjeblikket (SV 19) abandons the indirect statement and enters into a direct personal statement as a Christian in his struggle against the Church and cultural Christianity. With a little re-writing, one can say of Kierkegaard, what Kierkegaard said about Socrates, that Kierkegaard could only maintain his radical negativity, because in the decisive and concluding phase of his life he saw himself as an Apostle of Christ.  But unlike Socrates, Kierkegaard does not hereby achieve significance as a ”world-historical individuality” in Kierkegaard’s sense, but it might have been his ambition. It is through what Kierkegaard himself calls his ”genius” (SV 18: 183), which he displays in his writings, that he achieves significance – for cultural Christianity and, in a wider sense, for the cultivation of modern society. Thus, Kierkegaard comes to confirm Hegel’s thesis in a tragic way that Ur-Christianity can only be mediated through cultural Christianity.


Beyond Subjectivity. Levinas, Kierkegaard and the Absolute Other


However, since the thinkers both passed away, there are two possibilities: to side with one of them, thus criticizing the other, or to analyze their writings, in order to individuate analogies and differences from a third perspective. I would be a very bad lawyer, so I prefer to be a peace officer, opting for the second choice. I will show that, notwithstanding the deep divergences separating Levinas and Kierkegaard, there are also clear points in common, that the former (and perhaps even the latter) would never have admitted. The tension of subjectivity beyond itself, toward Infinity, will be the key point of their encounter.

1. The refusal of impersonal totality

First of all, Levinas and Kierkegaard are thinkers of singularity. Their philosophical reflection starts with a critique to Hegel and to the universal Spirit. The latter manifests itself in history, knowledge and ethics. The so-called Totality involves all the aspect of human life, considering individuals as parts of a greater plan, the immanent becoming of the Spirit toward the highest awareness of Itself.1 Each man is considered as a necessary, but only functional element of a super-individual entity, whose norms rule thinking and action.

Kierkegaard strongly lashes out against Hegel and his oblivion of singularity. It does not mean that the former denies the existence of universal principles of knowledge and ethics. As a matter of fact, societies are ruled by norms that everyone is expected to follow. One of these norms is the respect of human life, especially of the members of one’s family.

When Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, is commanded by God to kill his own son, he falls into a deep crisis.

There is no higher expression for the ethical in Abraham’s life than that the father shall love the son. The ethical in the sense of moral is entirely beside the point. Insofar as the universal was present, it was cryptically in Isaac, hidden, so to speak, in Isaac’s loins, and must cry out with Isaac’s mouth: Do not do this, you are destroying everything.2

Abraham knows that the sacrifice of Isaac means both a transgression of Jewish ethics and an unbearable suffering for the lost of his only child. God wants His gift back, without giving any reason. Abraham, a man of faith, obeys to the divine command and prepares his son for the sacrifice. His knife is ready to get dirty of his own blood. God then decides to hold the hand of the patriarch, who has proved his obedience enough.

Notwithstanding the reassuring epilogue, Abraham makes his choice for God’s sake and despite ethics. Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling, justifies this decision as the highest expression of singularity. Faith is defined as a paradoxical push, according to which “the single individual is higher than the universal” and “determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to absolute by his relation to the universal”3.

The highness of singularity is then due to its relation to the Absolute. Totality and God are the two extremes among which the individual takes place. To follow the former or the latter is due to a choice.4 The weight of each alternative is different: faith requires a leap, an act of courage and will directed to the highest task of a human being, ethics is a renounce to a real subjectivity. Shortly, the utmost duty of a person is to become singular, which requires one to be a believer.

Even if Silentio does not understand the movements of faith, because he does not experience them, he sees them through other men’s actions. The example of Abraham, and of other knights of faith, is the expression of a path toward infinity and real happiness.5 Silentio, talking about the story of the patriarch, admits the impossibility to know the secret of his interiority. He describes the experience of another man, without understanding it, without grasping the relation between the latter and God. Here two important aspects come out: the first is the irreducibility of an individual to another, the second is the uniqueness of the relation to Infinity.

Levinas seems to forget both when he criticizes Kierkegaard in Difficult Freedom and Proper Names. He denies every commitment of the latter with Jewish philosophy. First of all, the concept of faith as a leap, as a decision of free will, has to be excluded. Judaism believes in the Torah, in the law belonging to the religious tradition.6 Secondly, Levinas reproaches Kierkegaard to put religion above ethics. According to the former, the latter is guilty of the amoralism of Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers, who philosophize with the hammer, regardless of everything.7

Defining ethics as belonging to Totality means confusing the tyranny of the Same with the one-for-the-other, the pre-original push of first philosophy. If the faith was an act of freedom, it would be considered prior to responsibility. And the latter is, in Levinas’ thought, the principal feature of ethics.

Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. That is what constitute the ethical. 8

Levinas does not agree with the concept of ethics expressed by Silentio in Fear and Trembling and proposes another view, which is not in contrast with religion. The author of Difficult Freedom is right in underlining the differences between Jewish tradition and Kierkegaard’s thought, but he seems to ignore what the latter writes in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Here another pseudonym, Climacus, expresses his concept of ethics. If becoming a subject is the highest duty of a human being, as it was said before, it is what both ethics and religion ask him. While objective thought, and totality, demand the individual to become an observer, giving birth to an impersonal ethics, subjective thought does not claim to grasp external truth but inner one. Ethics is present everywhere God is, in the historical process as in the secret of inwardness.9 However, the individual cannot have a perfect knowledge of the former as he has of the latter. According to both ethics and religion, the man has to become a subject.

Therefore, says the ethical, dare, dare to renounce everything, including this loftily pretentious and yet delusive intercourse with world-historical contemplation; dare to become nothing at all, to become a particular individual, of whom God requires everything, without your being relieved of the necessity of being enthusiastic; behold, that is the venture! But then you will also have gained that God cannot in all eternity get rid of you, for only in the ethical is your eternal consciousness; behold, that is the reward! 10

Even if Levinas has read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, criticizing the “becoming subject” of the individual,11 he does not consider that religion here agrees with ethics. He seems to ignore that Kierkegaard always writes through pseudonyms and that every pseudonym has a singular perspective, which never coincides with the perspective of another pseudonym. This is why Silentio and Climacus have different views of ethics and religion. What Climacus says seems to be more detailed and, perhaps, similar to Kierkegaard’s thought: he underlines the difference between objective and subjective ethics. While the former expresses totality, the latter belongs to singularity.

Subjective ethics is very close to Levinas’ one, since the individual is seen in his uniqueness of election. He emancipates from totality and objectivity, looking for his principles in relation to God, to Infinity. The criticism of Hegelian thought is strong both in Levinas and Kierkegaard, thus leading to singularity and to a responsibility which cannot be transferred to anyone else.

The philosophers both contest the absorption of the Other in the Same and state the necessity of an individual ethical answer. They are, generally, against every impersonal system, even if Levinas does not recognize this aspect in Kierkegaard’s thinking. Accusing the latter of violence and amoralism seems really unjustified.12

Anyway, Levinas is not always severe with his predecessor. He appreciates Kierkegaard’s scepticism towards objective truth and the immanence of thought. Actually, in the Postscript, Climacus points out the limits of disciplines as mathematics or history, which are inevitably incomplete and make the subject accidental. Becoming an observer deprives the latter of its individuality, whose existence is wholly indifferent.13 Levinas makes the same criticism to Husserl’s intentionality, which sees the ego as an impersonal “who”. The immanence of thought, the sleep of il y a (“there is”), is the greatest alienation for a human being. He becomes an individual only when he is independent from theoretical activity.14

Being subjective is thus a necessary task for both philosophers. It implies a separation from universal knowledge and, furthermore, a relation to absolute alterity. Kierkegaard states that subjective truth involves a passion of the infinite. What really matters is not the correspondence between the thought and the object, that is the idea of God and God Himself. Subjective thought is focused on inwardness, on the relation between God and the ego. Subjective truth is nothing else than faith. Objectively, it is a paradox and implies uncertainty.15 However, Kierkegaard gives it the highest value and Levinas clearly appreciates it.

Thus Kierkegaard brings something absolutely new to European philosophy: the possibility of attaining truth through the ever-recurrent inner rending of doubt, which is not only an invitation to verify evidence, but a part of evidence itself. I think that Kierkegaard’s philosophical novelty is in his idea of belief. Belief is not, for him, an imperfect knowledge of truth, a truth without certainty, a degradation of knowledge.16

Doubt implies a continuous retreat from certainty, presumed by the right sciences and historical knowledge. It pushes toward the pursuit of something else, whose existence is not proved. Doubt is inseparable from belief, from subjective truth. Objectively, it is an expression of an imperfect knowledge, while, subjectively, it is the expression of truth itself. The uncertainty of the latter implies justification, or even silence.17 The choice of “Silentio” as a pseudonym for Fear and Trembling reflects the impossibility of Abraham to communicate his behaviour to his people. Subjective truth is an individual experience, requiring a relation with an absolute and unknowable alterity.

The uncertainty of faith does not imply either degradation or negativity. The same can be said about the idea of God in Levinas’ philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, the Infinite in the finite causes a breach in theoretic intentionality, overflowing every concept. Human thought is imperfect, because it is incapable of containing God. It does not mean that the perfect (infinite) is a negation of the imperfect (finite), but that the perfect transcends the imperfect. The idea of Infinity is then positive: it is not a lack of relation, but a relation to the absolutely distant.18

This relation, according to both Kierkegaard and Levinas, cannot be expressed with an objective knowledge. Turning to transcendence means separating from universal thought and becoming a subject. Furthermore, recognizing one’s own individuality means, at the same time, recognizing the irreducibility of the other person.

Even if the philosophers agree on this general statement, there are some differences separating them. While Kierkegaard is more concerned for the subject, Levinas gives priority to the other. According to the former, truth is subjectivity because it is focused on individual experience: “that every human being is such an entity existing for himself, is a truth I cannot too often repeat”19. It implies that one is able to know one’s inwardness, one’s own existence, but is unable to grasp alterity.20 The irreducibility of the subject is the condition of the irreducibility of the other.

The author of Totality and Infinity thinks in the opposite way: the irreducibility of the other is prior to the individuation of the self. While Kierkegaard focuses only on the separation of the ego from totality, Levinas has two concerns: the individuation of the subject and the irreducibility of the other to the violence of the ego. Thinking through intentionality and acting through free will are means of power on the other person. This is why Levinas puts responsibility before freedom and the other before the self.21

The subject, in Kierkegaard, follows its own will: the leap of faith is an act of freedom. It does not mean that life involves egoism, since the other person is important. The relation to God does not make sense without a commitment to the neighbour.22 Levinas does not say that the subject is not free, but that responsibility precedes will. At this point, the subject is considered in a passive acceptation (“subject to”), not as an “I”, but as a “me”.23

The priority of the other on the self is what differentiates Levinas from Kierkegaard. That aside, they both refuse impersonal totality, conceived as a theoretical and/or ethical system. They also assert the relation to Infinity as a modality of subjective uniqueness, that leads to recognize the irreducibility of the other person.

2. The irreducibility of the Infinite

Another point in common between Levinas and Kierkegaard is the view of Infinity itself. It coincides with God, who is absolutely Other and distant from the subject.

Precisely because there is the absolute difference between God and man, man expresses himself most perfectly when he absolutely expresses the difference. 24

Kierkegaard’s thought is extraordinary. This sentence places him in the middle of Christian tradition and contemporary philosophy. The author of Fear and Trembling never hides his protestant culture and concern for the life of faith. Anyway, his thought is not strictly theological, but primarily existential. The relation to Infinity, apart from its religious meaning, gives the highest sense to individual life. It does not matter if God exists or not, if He is a supreme being or something else. This is a concern of observers, of objective thinkers. What is really important is the relation between the subject and the divine, the finite and the infinite. Turning to transcendence, to the absolutely Other, is the only way for the individual to be itself. God is distant and irreducible to the subject, but, at the same time, extremely close. Dealing with infinity means dealing with one’s inwardness, with one’s utmost secret (Deus in interiore homine).

This secret cannot be communicated, only justified or expressed with silence. Saying the difference means exactly this: going beyond thought and language, thus facing incomprehension. The only way to express difference is manifesting Infinity in a finite existence.

Becoming subjective means becoming an extraordinary being, in the middle of worldly immanence and divine transcendence.25 The individual is called by God to follow a vocation in everyday life, to be a witness of His will. It implies going against the universal systems of thought and ethics, against an established order, to affirm individuality and follow what is asked to inwardness.

Notwithstanding the impossibility to grasp Infinity, the finite being answers to its call. The relation between the two goes beyond ontology and leads to ethics (not the universal one, but the one following religion). Infinity manifests itself through the evidence of a singular existence, so that the latter is, at the same time, the object of transcendence and the condition for its incarnation.26 There is a sort of exchange between Infinity and a finite being: the latter gives space to the former through transfiguration, while the former knows itself through the gaze of absolute alterity.27 Transfiguration (Forklarelse) is not an explanation (Forklaring), but an expression without words, recalled by the witness of faith.

The separation between man and God, that initially causes anxiety and a sense of alienation, becomes a push towards one’s own existence. When Abraham raises the knife over Isaac, he is answering to the divine call, even if he does not understand it. Leaving aside his people’s ethics and his sadness for the lost of the only child, he directs his free will toward the will of God. Abraham expresses Infinity through a finite action. And, when his hand is drawn back by a new command, he rejoices. He has obeyed and, at the same time, his son is alive. The epilogue of the story gives sense to the choice of Abraham: only through the paradox of the patriarch’s action the goodness of God is revealed. The passion for divinity, that pushes the individual toward an incomprehensible choice, leads to transfiguration. Infinity is expressed through the existence of a finite being.

Even according to Levinas, the distance between the finite and the infinite is overwhelming, though the latter is inside the former. The subject is separated from God and lives an independent life. It does not need anything else, but feels a tension inside. The relation between the finite and the infinite is Desire, which is not directed to fulfilment, but to absolute alterity.

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal and the Desired invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence in relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. Vision is an adequation of the idea with the thing, a comprehension that encompasses. Non-adequation does not denote a simple negation or an obscurity of the idea, but – beyond the light and the night, beyond the knowledge measuring beings – the inordinateness of Desire. Desire is desire for the absolutely other. 28

This tension towards the absolutely Other is primarily affective. It goes beyond the limits of thought and the adequation of the object to its idea. The Desire of Infinity originally belongs to subjectivity, which is affected by transcendence in an exceptional way. It is the trace of absence, of otherwise than being. It is called illeity (from the latin ille, “he”) and is nothing else but the mark of an original creation. It cannot be grasped by thought, because it goes beyond ontology and does not imply the existence of the creator. It is a semantic ambiguity, what unsays itself without negating. The trace of Infinity cannot thus be represented, since there is nothing in common between the subject and God.29 Levinas’ concept of transcendence refuses theology and every interpretation of the man as representing God. The affective relation to an absolute alterity, paradoxical and impossible to be explained in words, thus unites both Levinas and Kierkegaard.

However, the former does not agree with the latter, when he describes the nature of the metaphysical desire. First of all, it has nothing to do with need or passion. The subject feels a tension to Infinity when its separation is complete: the ego is wholly atheist and its material needs are satisfied by the external world (“without separation there would not have been truth; there would have been only being”30). The Desire of God is not looking for fulfilment, but pushes the subject to ethics. The command of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of moral action and establishes freedom on responsibility.31

Levinas’ desire of Infinity is thus very different from Kierkegaard’s passion of Infinity. First of all, the latter has its root in anxiety, the former in responsibility. The revelation of God strikes Levinas’ subject when it is quiet and satisfied, pushing it towards the other person. Kierkegaard’s individual, instead, is troubled by doubt and looks for the unity with Infinity. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s passion is oriented towards activity, Levinas’ desire to passivity. Even if they are both sources of morality, the former is based on freedom, the latter on responsibility, which precedes freedom itself.

Shortly, the infinite is, according to both the thinkers, absolutely different from the finite. The latter is moved by the desire of the former, even if the authors do not agree on its nature: the tension is active and passionate for Kierkegaard, passive and responsible for Levinas. However, the desire of Infinity leads, according to both, to the ethical/religious behaviour.

3. From the absolute Other to the singular other

The desire of Infinity is that which primarily constitutes the subject. However, according to Levinas and Kierkegaard, it is not enough for the fulfilment of individual existence. Being subjective means, at the same time, put in practice one’s tension to ethics, whose direction is indicated by the divine command. The relation to the absolute Other thus leads to the relation to the singular other.

Levinas accuses Kierkegaard of transcending the ethical stage and ignoring the other person for the sake of religion.32 He seems not to have read the Works of Love, where the neighbour is essential for the life of faith: “the single individual is committed in the debt of love to other people”33. Stating the irreducibility of the subject and of the other person is not enough for Kierkegaard. It could lead to an egoistic life, where the relation to Infinity would be purely ascetical. The love towards the other person, instead, is a commitment that cannot be avoided.

Levinas is the philosopher of alterity par excellence, since the relation to the other, both singular and absolute, is constitutive of the subject. And this relation implies a radical view, that is the impossibility for the I to exercise its power on the other person. Even if the latter can be partially reduced to phenomenality or submitted to freedom, there is something escaping the grasp of the ego. When the subject is wholly constituted as separated, the other person reveals, through the Face, the command of Infinity.

Freedom is then inhibited, not as countered by a resistance, but as arbitrary, guilty, and timid; but in its guilt it rises to responsibility. […] The relation with the Other as a relation with his transcendence – the relation with the Other who puts in question the brutal spontaneity of one’s immanent destiny – introduces into me what was not in me.34

Immanence is considered brutal, because it submits the individual to the anonymity of Totality. The violence of thought and freedom are nothing but expressions of the tyranny of the Same. The encounter with the other person makes the subject aware not only of its own individuality (already discovered in the atheistic separation), but even of its own uniqueness. The transcendence of the Face is a transfiguration, not an incarnation, of the transcendence of God. The call of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of ethics, pushing the subject to responsibility. The latter cannot be assumed by anybody else, it is the sign of a uniqueness in election. The transcendence undoes the deepest core of the ego with an unavoidable assignation.35

Ethico-religious life is then directed by the divine call to the other person. Both Levinas and Kierkegaard see absolute alterity as directed towards singular alterity. It is a threefold relation, whose terms are the subject, God and the other person. However, the two thinkers have different views about its modality.

Kierkegaard thinks of the subject as directly relating to God, who is the very link between the self and the other: “in love for the neighbor, God is the middle term. Love God is above all else; then you also love the neighbor and in the neighbor every human being.”36 There is not any mediation between the finite and the infinite. Paradoxically, the mediation is between the finite ego and the finite other. The relation to Infinity is then primary, the real condition of the encounter with the other person.

Levinas thinks exactly in the opposite way. Even if the infinite is in the finite as a trace of creation, one has to meet the other to be aware of illeity. The middle term is, in this case, not God, but the other person.37 Singular alterity is the place where absolute alterity reveals itself. The call to responsibility happens simultaneously to the encounter of the Face. The phenomenal dimension of the other man refers to what transcends phenomenon itself. The paradox is that, without seeing the finite, it is impossible to relate to Infinity. Kierkegaard and Levinas describe the threefold relation among the subject, God and the other in two opposite, but equally paradoxical ways: according to the former, the finite needs the infinite to relate to the finite, according to the latter, the finite needs the finite to relate to the infinite.

Other differences between the two philosophers concern their general view on the subject and on the other. These poles are both important, but, as it was stated before, Kierkegaard gives priority to the former, Levinas to the latter. The author of Totality and Infinity takes the risk of alienating the subject, while his predecessor tends to fall into solipsism.

In Fear and Trembling, for instance, subjectivity experiences its vocation without being understood. Abraham, going against the ethics of his people, feels a tension between his behaviour and the external judgement. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith cannot help but feel a deep solitude.

His behaviour leads him to detach himself from the system of needs of his community, in order to follow his vocation. He is extraordinary and, for this reason, runs the risk of being misunderstood. The “tribunal of the world” condemns his actions, which are oriented to please the “tribunal of God”.38 And, since the former is always there and the latter does not need him, the individual is always on the verge of falling into the abyss of nothing.

What has been said about ethico-religious behaviour is valid also for subjective thinking, well described in the Postscript.

The reflection of inwardness is the subjective thinker’s double reflection. In thinking, he thinks the universal, but as existing in this thinking, as assimilating this in his inwardness, he becomes more and more subjectively isolated.39

The risk of solitude is then unavoidable. Even if the individual thinks to universality, he is not an abstract entity. He is a singular and concrete being, whose thought cannot be separated from his existence. It does not imply subjectivism, because the truth of an object does not depend from the belief of the subject. It is possible to have a general concept of how a human being thinks, since it is a matter of observation. The latter implies the possibility of communication and is not submitted to anxiety or other emotional states. This saves Kierkegaard’s philosophy from the extremes of solipsism, subjectivism and irrationality.40 However, subjective truth is more important than objective one. The highest task of a human being is not becoming an observer, but becoming subjective: one has to focus primarily on the relation between oneself and the object, that depends on the perception of one’s own inwardness.

Levinas, on his side, is worried about the violence of subjective thought and freedom. This is why he develops an asymmetrical ethics and puts the other above the I. The latter is called by the Infinite to a pre-original and unavoidable responsibility. This election makes the subject wholly unique, but is connected to a risk of alienation.

The subject in responsibility is alienated in the depths of its identity with an alienation that does not empty the same of its identity, but constrains it to it, with an unimpeachable assignation, constrains it to it as no one else, where no one could replace it.41

In Otherwise Than Being, the very core of the subject is undone by the other, who is inside the ego as ipseity. It is an expression of Levinas’ mature thought, where ethics is took to an extreme and identity is destroyed from inside. In Totality and Infinity, instead, the risk of alienation is avoided, because ipseity is still a nucleus of genuine egoism.42

Levinas, as much as he strives to save the subject from alienation, gives way to it in his mature thought. Kierkegaard, on the other side, is able not to fall in solipsism, but is on the edge of a cliff. Focusing on the subject or on the other leads the two thinkers to opposite forms of extremism. Notwithstanding this and the modal differences, they are united by a threefold view of the relation between the finite and the infinite: the subject (finite) relates to God (infinite), who leads it toward the other person (finite).

4. A lifelong suffering

The last aspect of the relation between the infinite and the finite in Levinas and Kierkegaard is an unavoidable suffering of the subject. The latter, in its tension towards God, cannot help but experience a pathos, inextricably connected to the conscience of its own limits.

Individual existence is, according to Kierkegaard, a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. It is the place where transcendence reveals itself through the actions of an exceptional singularity. The subject is thus in the middle between its own needs as a worldly entity and the tension to go beyond the systems regulating these needs and their satisfaction. Becoming subjective means living in this world and striving for another world. The individual who follows his vocation knows already what his priority is: he has to renounce to satisfy his needs, when they hinder the pursuit of eternal happiness.43

It is not a matter of doing something and avoiding something else. The tension to Infinity is not only a limit to hedonism or to universal ethical life. It completely changes the existence of an individual, orienting it to that which is always there. A finite need disappears according to the subjective mood or to its satisfaction, while Infinity is eternal. It does not matter if it exists in an ontological sense, because it is constitutive of the individual and transcends his inwardness.

The choice of a religious life, of following “that which is always there”, causes an unavoidable pathos.

But suffering as the essential expression for existential pathos means that suffering is real, or that the reality of the suffering constitutes the existential pathos; and by the reality of the suffering is meant its persistence as essential for the pathetic relationship to an eternal happiness. It follows that the suffering is not deceptively recalled, nor does the individual transcend it, which constitutes a retreat from the task […] Viewed religiously, it is necessary […] to comprehend the suffering and to remain in it, so that reflection is directed upon the suffering and not away from it.44

The reality of suffering implies the persistence of the tension to Infinity. God is constitutively inside the individual, but following His will is a choice. Who pursues eternal happiness cannot avoid suffering and has to remain in it. The voluntary component of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is here strongly evident.

Levinas’ thought, on the other side, refuses the power of free will in relation to Infinity.

But giving has a meaning only as a tearing from oneself despite oneself, and not only without me. And to be torn from oneself despite oneself has meaning only as a being torn from the complacency in oneself characteristic of enjoyment, snatching the bread from one’s mouth. […] Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood.45

The suffering of the subject does not depend on a choice, but happens “despite oneself” and comes from one’s original constitution. Being sensible means being permeated by the other in the fibres of one’s own skin. The divine command, which urges upon responsibility for the other person, is directed to the spoliation of one’s flesh. There is no distinction between body and soul: the man, as a sensitive being, is affected by the enjoyment of its pleasure and, at the same time, by the indigence of the other person.

Suffering is then involuntary in Levinas and voluntary in Kierkegaard. However, both agree on considering pain as constitutive of the relation to Infinity and ethical life. The individual who follows the divine command puts aside the satisfaction of his needs, in order to give himself to the other person.

The reason for suffering is the same in Levinas and Kierkegaard. What really separates them is its aim. Accepting pain of one’s existence makes sense only if oriented to afterlife, writes Kierkegaard. The pursuit of eternal happiness is the reason of renouncing to one’s need and pleasures. According to Levinas, on the other side, it does not matter if there is life after death. Responsibility has to be undertook despite any other reason.46

However, there is no certainty of an eternal happiness, neither in Kierkegaard nor in Levinas. According to the former, it is an orientation toward Infinity, a relational modality, according to the latter it has nothing to do with responsibility. They both theorize a life of possibility, of uncertainty and doubt, which, paradoxically, has a higher value than objective truth.

Levinas recognizes the positivity of possibility in Kierkegaard,47 even if he does not acknowledge the existence of a religious ethics in the Postscript. As it was stated before, Climacus distinguishes universal morality from subjective one: the former constitutes a dogmatic system, while the latter is inconclusive and ongoing. The tension to God, driving force of religious ethics, does not lead to the certainty of beatitude, but at least deploys its possibility.

Levinas and Kierkegaard, notwithstanding some differences, agree in stating the singularity of the subject, which primarily explicates itself in relation to Infinity. The absolute difference between man and God hinders whatsoever objective certainty, but it does not make it less important. To face Infinity inside oneself is inevitable and leads to the realization of one’s own existence. What is more, the divine command indicates the other person as its real addressee. Life means giving oneself to singular alterity. However, in spite of a correct ethical behaviour, striving for Infinity is connected with suffering.

An intense and almost unbearable pain, involving the body and the soul, accompanies the subject until the end of its life. Levinas and Kierkegaard both assert the inevitability of suffering, due to a uniqueness in election. Individual existence is where God reveals Himself and shows the way of giving. This path never ends, until life stops, until worldly existence gives space to a new existence, or, if faith is meaningless, to nothing else (the anxiety over doubt never ends). Subjectivity, despite its finiteness, infinitely strives for what goes beyond.


1 Cf. Hegel G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by Miller A. V., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, §§ 793, 805, 808.

2 Kierkegaard S., Fear and Trembling (FT), in Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 59.

3 Ibid., p. 70.

4 According to Pojman, the leap of faith is an act of pure free will (cf. Pojman L., Religious Belief and the Will, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 143-8), while Sagi asserts that it has its root in existence (cf. Sagi A., Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence. The Voyage of the Self, Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi B. V., 2000, p. 41).

5 Cf. FT, p. 33-9.

6 Cf. Levinas E., Difficult Freedom (DF), trans. by Hand S., London: The Athlone Press, 1990, p. 144.

7 Cf. DF, p. 117; Id., “Existence and Ethics”, in Proper Names (PN), trans. by Smith M. B., London: The Athlone Press, 1996, pp. 72-3; Id., “A propos of Kierkegaard vivant”, in op. cit., p. 76.

8 Cf. PN, p. 73.

9 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP), trans. by Swenson D. F., London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1941, pp. 118-23.

10 Ibid., pp. 133-4.

11 Cf. PN, p. 76.

12 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., “Introduction: Good Fences May Not Make Good Neighbours After all”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), Kierkegaard and Levinas: ethics, politics, and religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 2; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 22-5, 32-9. According to Simmons, Levinas criticism of Kierkegaard is due to the influence of Jean Wahl (cf. Simmons A. J., “Existential Appropriation: The Influence of Jean Wahl on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 51-67).

13 Cf. CUP, pp. 175-9.

14 Cf. Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority (TI), Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 119.

15 Cf. CUP, pp. 181-2.

16 PN, p. 77.

17 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., op. cit., p. 3; Simmons A. J., op. cit., pp. 48-9.

18 Cf. TI, pp. 24-5, 41.

19 CUP, p. 169.

20 This is even the presupposition of Kierkegaard’s deconstructive readers, who are against logocentric and one-way interpretations. Cf. Jegstrup E., “Introduction”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), The New Kierkegaard, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 1-2.

21 Cf. TI, pp. 21-7, 203-4; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (OB), Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 15, 19-20, 88, 114-5, 138-9. Cf. also Janiaud J., Singularité et responsabilité. Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Levinas, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006, pp. 311-4.

22 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Works of Love (WOL), ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 190. Cf. also Westphal M., op. cit., pp. 25-32.

23 Cf. OB, pp. 15-6, 50-6, 72-5, 142. Cf. also Llewelyn J., “Who or What or Whot”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 72; Lellouche R., Difficile Levinas. Peut-on ne pas être levinassien ?, Paris-Tel Aviv : Editions de l’éclat, 2006, pp. 81-3.

24 CUP, p. 412.

25 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 155, 158.

26 Cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 134.

27 Cf. Podmore S. D., Kierkegaard and the Self Before God : Anatomy of the Abyss, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011, pp. xii-xiii, 180.

28 TI, p. 34.

29 Cf. OB, pp. 12-3, 151-2; TI, p. 104. On metaphysical Desire, cf. Ciaramelli F., “Levinas e la fenomenologia del desiderio”, in Moscato A. (ed.), Levinas. Filosofia e trascendenza, Genova: Marietti, 1992, pp. 144-58; Baccarini E., Lévinas. Soggettività e Infinito, Roma: Studium, 1985, pp. 40, 46-7. Lellouche defines it as a hetero-affection (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 86-7). About the semantic ambiguity and non-representativeness of Infinity, cf. Baccarini E., op. cit., pp. 30-8; Chalier C., La trace de l’Infini. Emmanuel Levinas et la source hébraïque, Paris : Cerf, 2002, pp. 65-73 ; Moscato A., “Semantica della trascendenza. Note critiche su E. Levinas”, in Moscato A. (ed.), op. cit., pp. 58-9, 73-8; Plourde S., Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité, Paris : Cerf, 1996, pp. 136-7 ; Rolland J., Parcours de l’autrement, Paris : PUF, 2000, pp. 1-2. According to Visker, the intrigue of the Infinite is anything but il y a, where the subject, being one-for-the-other, loses its individuality (cf. Visker R., Truth and Singularity. Taking Foucault into Phenomenology, Dordrecht-Boston-London: Kluwer, 1999, pp. 236-7, 241-6, 265-72).

30 TI, p. 60.

31 Cf. TI, pp. 50, 203-4. Cf. also Chalier C., op. cit., pp. 44-8, 56-60; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 19-21; Petitdemange G., “Au dehors : les enjeux de l’alterité chez Emmanuel Lévinas”, in A. Münster (ed.), La différence comme non-indifférence. Éthique et altérité chez Emmanuel Lévinas, Paris : Kimé, 1995, pp. 30-2 ; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 111-4. According to Westphal, Levinas’ transcendence is traumatic because it destabilizes the inwardness of the subject (cf. M. Westphal, “The Trauma of Transcendence as Heteronomous Intersubjectivity”, in M. M. Olivetti (ed.), Intersubjectivité et théologie philosophique, Padova : CEDAM, 2001, pp. 92-8).

32 Cf. PN, pp. 76-7.

33 WOL, p. 190.

34 TI, p. 203.

35 Cf. ibid., p. 279; OB, pp. 141-2.

36 WOL, p. 58. Cf. also ibid., p. 108. Gibbs points out that the alterity of the other person is mediated by the alterity of God (cf. Gibbs R., “I or You: The Dash of Ethics”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), op. cit., p. 146). Seeskin states that the transcendence of Kierkegaard’s God is anonymous and excludes every form of dialogue (cf. Seeskin K., Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 134).

37 OB, p. 12. Cf. also Haar M., “L’obsession de l’autre. L’éthique comme traumatisme”, Cahiers de l’Herne : Lévinas 1991, pp. 444-5; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 119-24; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 106-9; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, op. cit., p. 24.

38 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 191, 197, 308-10.

39 CUP, p. 61.

40 Cf. Gouwens D. J., Kierkegaard as religious thinker, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 49-53, 56.

41 OB, pp. 141-2.

42 Cf. TI, pp. 39, 44, 60, 117-8, 208, 277-9.

43 Cf. CUP, p. 350-3. According to Sagi, the voyage to Infinity and to the self are the same, since obeying to God’s will means realizing one’s own existence. Notwithstanding its weakness in understanding Infinity, the subject has the strenght to follow it. (cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 16, 147).

44 Ibid., pp. 396-7.

45 OB, p. 74. Unlike Westphal, Lellouche defines Levinas’ ethics as traumatic because it coincides with suffering (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 54-7, 70-1).

46 Cf. OB, pp. 6, 117.

47 Cf. Sheil P., Kierkegaard and Levinas. The Subjunctive Mood, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 4, 144-5.