The Dialectical Self

By drawing out important themes bequeathed them by their shared predecessor G. W. F. Hegel, Jamie Aroosi shows that Marx and Kierkegaard were engaged in parallel projects of making sense of the modern, "dialectical" self, as it realizes itself through a process of social, economic, political, and religious emancipation.

The Dialectical Self
Kierkegaard, Marx, and the Making of the Modern Subject

Jamie Aroosi

2018 | 248 pages | Cloth $59.95
Political Science / Philosophy
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Table of Contents

Introduction. The Dialectical Self

Chapter 1. Selfhood
Chapter 2. Deception

Chapter 3. Communication
Chapter 4. Law
Chapter 5. Faith

Chapter 6. Subjectivity
Chapter 7. History
Chapter 8. Democracy

Chapter 9. Religion
Chapter 10. Politics

Conclusion. Love and Revolution

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

The Dialectical Self

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.
—Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.
—James Joyce, Ulysses

Trauma and Mimesis

Ours is a fractured age. Born in the crucible of World War I, the promise of a progressive philosophy encompassing the totality of our spiritual and sociopolitical lives—a promise last tendered by G. W. F. Hegel—came to seem a fool's crusade at best and, at worst, a rationalization for imperial destructiveness. Whereas we had once been able to imagine Western civilization as a universalist project delivering rational enlightenment to humankind, with Hegel's thought representing a particular highpoint, the sheer destructiveness of World War I shattered this self-image, revealing that it might only run skin deep. And what began with World War I only intensified in the decades to follow, as the examples of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, National Socialism and Stalinism, and the Cold War and decolonization all seemed to provide tragic proof of a will to domination that existed as the hidden foundation of the Western project. In the ensuing wreckage, it seemed like a new era of rupture had begun.

As early as 1920, Sigmund Freud captured something of this zeitgeist. Turning to the question of trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud offered a clinical analysis for a phenomenon of unfortunate familiarity following World War I, as he argued that trauma entailed a rupture in our ability to construct a cohesive mental representation of the world. For Freud, our attempt to make sense of the world was a necessary developmental step in the growth of personal autonomy, as it allowed us to navigate the world. However, as our understanding derives its impetus from self-preservation, it was necessarily complicit in domination, insofar as we want to understand the world so that we can control it. And since the world is simply too complex for intellectual confinement, this made radical ruptures—be they personal or political—a foregone conclusion.

Freud's insight was not new, if its psychological application was. Prior to World War I, thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche had long predicted the dissolution of Western thought, seeing within its insistence on reason a hidden will to domination, and thereby creating a body of thought easily adaptable to the lived reality of post-World War I European intellectuals. For Nietzsche, the Western project was itself a nihilistic project intent on domination; however, as with Freud, it also served the developmental role of saving individual autonomy because it offered us a meaning by which to live—"man would rather will nothingness than not will." Nonetheless, if the Western project was little more than a veiled will to power, investing our faith in its promise set the stage for a massive cultural breakdown—a breakdown evidenced by World War I. Therefore, when Freud offered his postwar theory of trauma, he was offering a clinical correlate to the prophetic claims of nineteenth-century intellectuals like Nietzsche, who saw a cultural breakdown as imminent, because trauma was the acute example of a general problem. The radical claims of the nineteenth century seemed verified by the lived reality of the twentieth.

If ours is a fractured age—an age in which all pretensions at universal meaning are suspected of domination—the story of nineteenth-century thought reinterpreted through twentieth-century events helps explain how we got here. However, the pervasive sense of vulnerability and loss experienced by Western intellectuals following World War I—we might say their trauma—not only made the insights of the nineteenth century particularly resonant but also led to their distortion. Rather than interpreting the criticisms levied by nineteenth-century thinkers as correctives to the Western project, the tumult of events often led to their stark portrayal. However, for Freud, while meaning might be implicated in an attempt to control our surroundings, it could only do so if it was somehow true, because our ability to control our surroundings depended on an accurate representation of them. This is what Freud believed trauma was, after all, as trauma was the result of only those psychic attacks that we did not foresee. It did not invalidate truth; it merely demonstrated its limits. In this sense, what Europe had lived through was not necessarily an invalidation of the Western project but an attack on the hubris that believed it fulfilled. As Freud himself wrote when reflecting on the war, our disappointment should not lead us to conclude that the promise of a peaceful future is forever invalid but only that we have not traveled as far as we once thought.

The lessons of World War I were hardly momentary insights. The horrors of the century to follow solidified these truths, as the twentieth century seemed better proof of ethical, political, and philosophical pessimism than of the optimism of earlier ages. While the trauma of war receded, becoming ever more a memory and less a lived reality, what remained of this tumultuous period was its deep suspicion of any sense of meaning that had pretensions of universality. All told, we had come to embrace rupture rather than being surprised by it. However, as Freud argues, even the very breakdown of meaning helps reveal universal truths against which it is hard to argue. Specifically, while the meaning that we assert as true might be less than the full truth, our endless attempt to create such meaning reveals underlying truths about ourselves. We might therefore become suspicious of all truth, even going so far as to embrace a contemporary iteration of Nietzsche's will to "nothingness," but the very activity of asserting the meaninglessness of the world proves its own conclusions wrong. As Nietzsche knew, nothingness is itself a meaning by which many of us live.

For an age in the midst of a breakdown—an age of unprecedented destruction—moderation, even in thought, is often the first value lost. Nonetheless, in its very attack on truth, the intellectual repetitions of the twentieth century served to clarify a truth that was evident to some in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Freud's work on trauma saw repetition compulsion as a primary mechanism for overcoming trauma, as an individual attempts to gain mastery over the rupture. More generally, the attempt to rebuild a framework for interpreting the world, even if it was a framework of infinite fragmentation, would be something that both Freud and Nietzsche would recognize as the activity of self-construction. And while there is more than a little irony to the fact that philosophies of rupture should help intellectuals overcome it, the concern of the present work is with this very process. It is this process that lies at the core of what is here called the dialectical self.

The Owl of Minerva

For all of the rebellions against totalizing theories in the twentieth century—rebellions intensified by historical events—the last such theory was that of G. W. F. Hegel. For Hegel, the diverse spheres of human life, ranging from the world of art to that of philosophy and from the world of religion to that of politics, each embodied something of the "Truth," albeit in a form appropriate to that sphere. As an example, the symbolic medium of the religious sphere contained humanity's self-representation, while the ethical and political spheres then externalized our self-understanding into the world of action. For this reason, Hegel could write that "the institutions of ethical life are divine institutions" because "it is in the ethical realm that the reconciliation of religion with worldliness and actuality comes about and is accomplished." All told, by locating a fundamental truth, Hegel could then understand the different areas of life as embodying this truth in their own way. Moreover, for Hegel, truth became more evident over time, as history was the medium through which a truth that was at first only latent later became manifest. The entirety of human existence, including even its historical activity, thereby found explanation within Hegel's thought.

While twentieth-century Hegel scholarship had many highpoints, outside of those who worked with Hegel, this century often lacked sensitivity in its approach to his thought, going so far as to demonize him as a protofascist. The totalizing nature of Hegel's project, coupled with the preeminent value he accorded to reason, made him an easy target. For instance, Hegel argued that nineteenth-century Western civilization had finally become a truly rational society, with the preeminent location being found in the "Germanic realm." In the wake of the complete breakdown of European norms in World War I, which was tragically compounded by World War II and the Holocaust, it became easy to treat Hegel as at best a joke and at worst precisely the type of rationalization for domination that the twentieth century had been eager to expose. However, what critics often failed to notice was that for all of Hegel's problems—and problems do exist—his theory was ultimately a theory of freedom. If Hegel suffered from some of the problems latent within Western thought, he was also the most developed repository of its promise.

While this promise was often hard to see from within the twentieth century, this was not the case from within the nineteenth. Granted, intense criticism of Hegel began as early as the decade following his 1831 death, most notably in the work of the Young Hegelians. Moreover, a decade later, this criticism would come into its own in the parallel projects of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx. However, rather than lodging simplistic attacks, Kierkegaard and Marx represent a mature and sophisticated engagement with Hegel's thought, for which reason they remain profoundly indebted to it. While their disciples did not always recognize this debt, sometimes caricaturing their criticisms as entailing a complete rejection, Hegel's legacy clearly lives on in their work. Specifically, relying on a model of the dialectical self that each borrowed from him, Kierkegaard and Marx are not only Hegel's most trenchant critics but also his most important appropriators.

Substantively, Kierkegaard and Marx jointly criticized Hegel for the philosophical form that his work took—his philosophical idealism—as both identified an inherent conservatism within it. In fact, Hegel himself identified this conservatism, but argued that the project of philosophical understanding was an unavoidably conservative task. However, for both Kierkegaard and Marx, the challenge of philosophy was not the conservative task of merely understanding the world. Instead, the challenge was to change it, if Marx understood this at the universal level of political transformation, while Kierkegaard understood it at the individual level of personal transformation. Therefore, whereas Hegel understood his philosophical approach as primarily descriptive, Kierkegaard and Marx borrowed an essentially Hegelian conception of selfhood but used it prescriptively. However, as each developed his parallel criticism of Hegel's idealism, freeing his conception of selfhood from its conservative formulation, what had once been imagined as a unity became fractured. Kierkegaard devoted himself to questions of religion, while Marx devoted himself to questions of politics.

It is the task of the present work to reunite these divergent discourses, demonstrating that Kierkegaard and Marx are simply two sides of the same coin. Just as Hegel saw an underlying unity in religion and politics, Kierkegaard's thought offers a comprehensive and radical philosophy of self-knowledge, while Marx offers the complementary political philosophy. Consequently, insofar as Marx and Kierkegaard continue to serve as significant foundations for contemporary thought, the unity of their thought also promises to serve as a way to help synthesize the diverse strands of thought that flourished in their wake, so that the Kierkegaard-inspired project of self-transformation can be wed to the Marx-inspired project of political transformation. Moreover, it will become increasingly clear that the success of each depends on the success of the other, as self-transformation is a necessary condition for political transformation, while political transformation is a necessary consequence of self-transformation.

The Parallel Postulate

To date, there exist no major comparative studies of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx. As Kierkegaard and Marx are Hegel's two most important critics, not to mention his two most important appropriators, it is striking that no such work exists. It becomes all the more so the closer we look. Born on the very same day but five years apart, both wrote dissertations that explored ancient Greek thought—Marx on Democritean and Epicurean thought and Kierkegaard on Socratic irony. Both had a literary penchant (both were lovers of Shakespeare) and then later immersed themselves in more systematic philosophical study—intellectual proclivities that led to their respective attempts to reconcile a more romantic outlook with philosophical idealism. Both began their mature intellectual production around 1843, with some of their early works containing penetrating and largely parallel attacks on Hegel. Neither held an academic post, in large part owing to their respective radicalism, so they both borrowed the very best of the Western philosophic tradition while bringing it outside of the halls of academe. Moreover, neither garnered much philosophical attention until their respective intellectual receptions in Germany, following World War I, when their work then received the attention it deserved. While this is but a partial list of the very basic details of their lives and thought, even this simple list would seem to warrant serious comparative study. The question, then, is why it has not.

One of the major reasons lies in the nature of their intellectual receptions. Not given their philosophical dues until interwar Germany, Kierkegaard and Marx found themselves on center stage in what was also the twentieth century's first major epoch of Western thought. However, during this radical moment in time, for all the intellectual boundaries that were being transgressed, it was also a moment in which many lines were being drawn, and these lines were just as much political as they were intellectual. While Kierkegaard helped inspire many schools of thought, from existentialism and phenomenology to a major revival of Protestant thought, Marx inspired the diverse array of thinkers who came to constitute Western Marxism. Yet, while Kierkegaard and Marx pervaded the intellectual climate, this coincided with the rise of National Socialism, and many of those inspired by Marx happened to be Jewish, or else political opponents of fascism, whereas those inspired by Kierkegaard were sometimes complicit in Nazism, or else tending toward political quietism. What resulted was that Kierkegaard became a victim of attacks waged against his appropriators, a problem that was likewise true for Marx, as what they actually wrote often became secondary to their role in German intellectual and political life. Therefore, for all the rich thought they inspired, they also inspired many unwarranted prejudices, many of which—outside of their respective fields of study—continue to endure today. And these continue to keep them apart. Born in the same era, rediscovered in tandem, and then interpreted and misinterpreted through the lens of German interwar strife, even the misinterpretations that have kept them apart stand as further reason to put them together.

Interestingly, this problem is perhaps most acute within the world of political thought. The foundations of contemporary Western thought are often located in the intellectual rebellions of Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Yet, Kierkegaard is the only figure who is wholly absent within the discipline of political thought. However, Nietzsche and Freud are no less conventionally "political" than is Kierkegaard, but this has not stopped their incorporation into the canon. Moreover, Kierkegaard was clearly being read by many of the twentieth century's most important political minds, and often quite intensely. For instance, a partial list of those who have written on Kierkegaard includes Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, and, more recently, Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and Jürgen Habermas. Beyond this list, anyone educated in interwar Germany, post-World War II France, or the United States and England in the 1960s—perhaps the most fruitful moments in twentieth-century Western thought—would be hard-pressed to have avoided reading Kierkegaard. He was in the very air they breathed, but outside of the works they wrote about Kierkegaard directly—themselves typically minor affairs—it would be hard to locate even a single explicit reference in their other, more political works.

More strikingly, many of these thinkers were directly involved in attempting to achieve exactly what Kierkegaard's thought offers: a theory of subjective emancipation that can be married to an objective sociopolitical critique. In order to achieve this, many intellectuals explicitly drew on Hegel's theory of subjectivity (such as the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman) and others upon Marx's theory of alienation, but all the while, these intellectuals were simultaneously reading an entire body of thought dedicated to this exact problem. Therefore, for those who have spent time understanding Kierkegaard's thought and who are also well versed in the canon of twentieth-century political thought, it is hard to avoid seeing traces of Kierkegaard everywhere. Unfortunately, those who straddle these two worlds number but a few. And this is only compounded by the fact that when twentieth-century political thinkers spoke directly about Kierkegaard, rather than acknowledging their debt to him, what they typically offered was little more than criticism. While this is partially explained by the political intrigues of German interwar intellectual life, the full answer is found in a more difficult problem. It is found in the question of religion.

Religion and Politics

For all the twentieth century's embrace of difference, the difference between religious and secular discourse continues to seem insurmountable. This is hardly true, as this work demonstrates; however, this problem reveals a more fundamental underlying one—we lack the repertoire for thinking about religion and politics. While it is easy to oversimplify this point, among sociopolitical thinkers, there is pervasive tendency to look with suspicion upon anything remotely suggestive of religion, a point that is perhaps even truer among the many diverse disciples of Marx. Marx did famously write that religion "is the opium of the people," and lines like these seem to justify no end of contempt, as religion is uncritically equated with its conservative sociopolitical forms. Reciprocally, religious thinkers often see the political world as something to be ignored, or as little more than an interpersonal realm that can be improved through a private ethics, as they lack the critical tools—or they simply reject them outright—for thinking about political life in a systematic way. Politics is uncritically understood as a compromise of ethics, not their fulfillment. If religion is an opiate to some, it is as if politics does not exist to others.

Yet, there is a depth in Kierkegaard and Marx that forces us to go beyond this simple opposition. For all of Marx's attacks on religion, including his pronouncement that it "is the opium of the people," there is a sophistication to Marx's understanding of religion. Even within this famous passage, if we read beyond this narrow excerpt, we see Marx is more sensitive than he is sometimes made to appear. For Marx, "Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness." For Marx, the deep anguish and yearning expressed in religious discourse is an expression of real anguish and yearning, as is the promise that religion makes. The problem is not that religion is patently untrue; it is that its expressions and promises are the illusory form of something that should be real. Politics will bring the same fulfillment that religion promises, but that it cannot deliver.

As for Kierkegaard, his turn inward, away from the material world, has seemed to many to be a renunciation of political engagement. Truth is inside, Kierkegaard argues; it lies within subjectivity and not in the external world. Any political solution to the question of human fulfillment is therefore itself an illusion and not vice versa, as Kierkegaard seems to swing to the exact opposite pole of Marx. In a passage that approximates Marx's thoughts on religion, albeit in this case on the question of politics, Kierkegaard writes that "the religious is eternity's transfigured rendition of the most beautiful dream of politics. No politics has been able, no politics is able . . . to think through or to actualize to the ultimate consequences this idea: human-equality, human-likeness . . . Ultimately only the essentially religious can . . . effect human equality . . . [because] the essentially religious is the true humanity." For all his criticisms of politics, he does not dismiss politics outright; he simply calls it illusory—much as Marx spoke of religion. And just as Marx validates the content of religion while criticizing it, Kierkegaard also validates the content of politics—its "most beautiful dream" of "human-equality"—while criticizing it. It is not that the dream of politics is a lie; it is that politics cannot deliver on it—only religion can.

What we find here is a striking opposition between Kierkegaard and Marx—we might say a dialectical opposition—that is hardly the type of antithesis we can easily dismiss. If each simply criticized the other, that would be one thing; however, what we see is that each appropriates the other. Religion is only a lie because politics holds religion's truth; politics is only a lie because religion holds politics' truth. Ignoring our conventional ideas about what constitutes religion and what constitutes politics, this brief analysis should be more than enough to suggest that beneath the surface of this terminology, something profound is taking place. If Marx's politics appropriate religion and Kierkegaard's religion appropriates politics, this suggests that what they are talking about is actually the same. This would have been little surprise to Hegel, as he developed his religious thought alongside his political thought, seeing them as different expressions of the same truth, but it is likely a surprise to us. Yet, referred to by different names and developed in different directions that ultimately illuminate its different dimensions, there is a deep unity beneath their work. That unity is the self.

Freedom and Selfhood

The concern of the present work is to articulate the idea of selfhood that unites Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx. And as was the case with Hegel, Kierkegaard and Marx understood the fundamental nature of the self as entailing a substantively rich conception of freedom. Therefore, understanding the self and understanding freedom are one and the same. Moreover, this idea continues to provide a foundation for contemporary thought, if it is rarely acknowledged with the clarity that they brought to it. Instead, it has become an almost unspoken—and even unacknowledged—assumption by many thinkers. This owes more than a little to the radical intellectual break that World War I represents, and to the many violent ruptures that seemingly define the twentieth century, as it became difficult to see any continuity between prewar and postwar thought—beyond the nineteenth century's prophetic and radical critiques. In other words, the twentieth century appropriated much of the nineteenth century's critical insight and less so the positive philosophy; it appropriated a suspicion of Western thought, without its promise of freedom.

However, Kierkegaard's and Marx's criticisms of Western thought were meant to clarify its promise, not to discard it wholesale, so that a return to their thought allows us the possibility of marrying a radical critique with the promise of a substantive understanding of freedom and selfhood. Moreover, it is through this understanding that we can reclaim something of the unity of thought that was lost following World War I, as the intense polarizations that began there have endured. For all of our radical critiques, we seem less able to cross intellectual boundaries than ever before, as was the case for someone like Hegel, whose thought spanned religion and politics, history and art, and everything in between. This is why Marx and Kierkegaard prove so promising—they are bastions of freedom, clarified through radical critique.

However, Marx and Kierkegaard are not without their own problems; for all their insight into selfhood, they each carry but one part of a larger whole. While their respective interests in religion and politics do not preclude the possibility of a shared sense of selfhood, and instead only help reveal a complex unity beneath their work, it does indicate that each developed it in a one-sided way. In other words, religion and politics speak to different aspects of the self; they do not determine it, as they are ways we have for understanding and developing the complex nature of the self that they reflect. So, in order to understand selfhood, we need to reintegrate these back into a whole. Therefore, this work maintains a commitment to this idea of the self, first and foremost, so that it, rather than Marx or Kierkegaard, dictates its direction.

With this in mind, the trajectory of this work follows a narrative of the self's appropriation of freedom. Part I introduces the idea of the self as freedom but does so by discussing the question of bondage, or freedom's absence. Contrasting Kierkegaard's concept of despair with Marx's concept of alienation, we will see how these two problems are phenomenologically identical. If Kierkegaard subjectively deepens our understanding of bondage, Marx completes the picture by situating it within a larger political whole. Part II transitions from bondage to emancipation. Focusing on Kierkegaard's idea of a leap of faith as a narrative of emancipation, we will see how Marx situates a similar process within political reality, thereby helping us understand the nature of revolutionary subjectivity. Part III proceeds to a discussion of freedom itself. Beginning with Kierkegaard's metaphysics of freedom, we complicate this metaphysics by using Marx to situate it historically, before proceeding to situate it communally. We therefore begin with an understanding of freedom as lived by an individual considered alone, and then move on to a discussion of such an individual if situated historically, before examining what a community of free individuals looks like. Last, in Part IV, we examine the question of praxis. It is here where Marx and Kierkegaard most diverge. If the dialectical self unites their work, their respective focus on religion and politics reflects a choice each made about how best to cultivate its freedom. For Marx, the answer was politics, and for Kierkegaard, religion. We therefore conclude with a discussion of how their respective understandings of praxis explain why their work appears so different, yet is nonetheless united by a shared concern for the self. More important, we will see the necessity of uniting these two forms of praxis if the promise of freedom is to be achieved.

If our own interest in freedom is to be complete, we need to learn to be attentive to the spiritual and ethical nature of freedom and to its social and political dimensions, to religion and to politics, to Kierkegaard and to Marx. Kierkegaard's vision of religion speaks to the subjective nature of freedom, offering us a full and rich picture of human interiority, while helping make us aware of our fundamental commitment to those around us; Marx's vision of politics helps us think about the nature of that commitment to others, urging us to realize that the impediments to freedom are not solely subjective, as there are overwhelming social and political forces with an interest in maintaining our bondage. It is only by uniting these concerns—by attending to the subjectivity of those around us while simultaneously combatting the objective political forces that stand in our way—that freedom will ever come to be. As Kierkegaard might say, politics without religion rings hollow, to which Marx might respond, religion without politics is blind. However, together, we find truth. And that truth is freedom.