freedom, guilt, philosophy

Kierkegaard on How We Are Responsible for the Whole World

Kierkegaard writes freedom “always has to do only with itself”.  

 “[T]he opposite of freedom is guilt, and it is the greatness of freedom that it always has to do only with itself, that in its possibility it projects guilt and accordingly posits it by itself. And if guilt is posited actually, freedom posits it by itself. If this is not kept in mind, freedom is confused in a clever way with something entirely different, with force.” [Concept of Anxiety, Kindle 1978]

At first glance this seems an unlikely result.   Why doesn’t freedom have to do with numerous factors other than itself: with constraints for example?  Why doesn’t the freedom of the alcoholic have to do with his disease for example, or the freedom of someone who is the victim of propaganda have to do with the government that deludes him?   Kierkegaard however does not pull his punches.  If freedom does not have to do with anything other than itself, then it follows everything we have to do with in our attempt to be free, is nothing other than a fall-out of our freedom.  Kierkegaard embraces this view and says, counter-intuitively that the free individual feels responsible for the whole world.  

“Guilt is a more concrete conception, which becomes more and more possible in the relation of possibility to freedom. At last it is as if the guilt of the whole world united to make him guilty, and, what is the same, as if in becoming guilty he became guilty of the guilt of the whole world. Guilt has the dialectical character that it does not allow itself to be transferred, but whoever becomes guilty also becomes guilty of that which occasioned the guilt. For guilt never has an external occasion, and whoever yields to temptation is himself guilty of the temptation.” (Concept of Anxiety, Kindle Locations 2002-2006). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

The two views — that freedom only has to do with itself and that whoever is tempted is guilty of his own temptation — are two instances of the same thesis, one put positively, the other put negatively.    To see how this works, supposing I am tempted to gossip about my friend, in order to keep the conversation at a party lively.  I could give into the temptation and do it, or realize I care about him enough, and endure being thought a boring conversationalist.   The thesis that freedom really only has to do with itself means that if I gossip about my friend the real explanation is that I am trying to avoid the vulnerability and pain of the situation.  I am not dealing with an external force or inner fact — a stressful day, a callous office environment, or my gossipy character — but with my own freedom which by its nature includes the possibility of evasion and self-deception.   If I give in to the temptation and gossip what I have given into is a temptation to avoid risk and vulnerability that I could have stood up to.    Freedom and sin expand backwards in time and outwards in my social world, so that the more I think about my life, the more I see facing vulnerability or evading vulnerability everywhere I look.  Although there may be facts about me that are not relevant to my freedom they cease to be irrelevant once I know about them.  Therefore I am responsible for my whole world and never face an opponent other than me.

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2 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on How We Are Responsible for the Whole World

  1. Mikey says:

    Kierkegaard again, eh? Thank you for your explanation, but for at least one reader you’re welcome to dumb it down even further next time. I still don’t know what he’s on about.

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