Beyond Romanticism: Kierkegaard, Irony, and the Modern Self

It is a curious, perhaps even cruel, irony that Søren Kierkegaard would often be hailed as the “Father of Existentialism.” The moniker alone may dissuade Christians from engaging his ideas charitably, imagining him as a harbinger of modern disorder. However, such people are sure to be taken aback when they discover the efforts of a young Kierkegaard directly subverting (not creating) the intellectual groundwork of the modern psyche in his 1841 student thesis, The Concept of Irony. This oft neglected text represents the culminating efforts of Kierkegaard’s extensive study of philosophy and theology at the University of Copenhagen. It contains many burgeoning concepts and images which would only be extrapolated with more force throughout the rest of Kierkegaard’s philosophical career. Careful readers of The Concept of Irony will find Kierkegaard’s first major subversive critique of Romanticism–a critique which remains equally applicable today.

The topic of Socratic irony proved strategic for Kierkegaard. In his era, it became fashionable in academic circles to interpret Socrates as someone seeking to stand above the state and its rote traditions. The budding Romantic movement in Kierkegaard’s era labeled this posture of radical independence as being akin to irony, for Socrates feigned the life of an ignorant fool whose wisdom could somehow unravel even the strongest established social norms. As an individual, Socrates lived as a kind of spectator who stood on the outside of the given conventions, deliberately surfacing its internal contractions while not belonging to them. Romantics praised this stark and heroic individualism. They understood Socrates as living a life of total irony. Precisely through irony, they argued, Socrates lived as an emancipated individual–subjectivity par excellence.

Kierkegaard’s project therefore begins by carefully defining the essential nature of Socratic irony. In the process, he agrees with those who saw Socrates’ famed method of inquiry as not merely a teaching tool but a disposition of life. It is at this point where Kierkegaard defines irony succinctly as “infinite, absolute negativity,” as it provokes a kind of inner self-awareness against a given environment. This made “irony a qualification of subjectivity.”[1] This indeed echoed the common interpretation of the Socratic ideal. Consequently, many of the finest artists and luminaries of Europe sought to modernize this mode of life through the medium of Romantic art. Kierkegaard, however, began to diverge sharply with his contemporaries in his answer as to whether Socratic irony is sufficient for facilitating true individuality.

Importantly, Kierkegaard did not interpret Socrates as expecting anything of substance beyond his probing questions. Socratic irony, by itself, strives at nothing rather than at a substantive synthesis. As Kierkegaard sees it, “[Socrates] rises ever more lightly, sees it all disappear beneath him in his ironic bird’s-eye view, and he himself hovers over it in ironic contentment, borne up by the absolute self-consistency of infinite negativity. In this way he becomes alien to the whole world to which he belongs.”[2] Despite his youthfulness, Kierkegaard suspected that one who suspends from actuality to such a degree ushers in devastating consequences. Absolute negative irony eats away anything which tries to contain it, including the self.

In the latter part of The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard leads the reader through an intricate analysis of some renowned literary artifacts. Of particular interest to him are the artistic relics of German Romanticism which flourished in the early 1800s. These novels and authors, such as Friedrich Schlegel and his provocative Lucinde, embodied a burgeoning form of the modern psyche. Kierkegaard sought to discern amongst the artistic diversity a particular variant of negative irony which served as the Romantic movement’s defining feature.

In Kierkegaard’s estimation, the archetype of Romanticism does not consist of a bohemian persona or the social reformer per se, but of a negative relation to actuality.[3] This to an even greater extent than Socrates. As one author surmises:

Whereas Socrates negated only the given actuality or established order of his time, not actuality as such, the romantic ironists find the whole of existence to be inadequate, meaningless, and boring…Influenced by Fichte’s theory of the self-constituting ego, [The Romantics] acknowledge nothing higher than themselves and assume absolute power ‘to bind and to unbind’, to let stand and to destroy.[4]

To the Romantic, there are no givens or ideals which demand obligation. All commitments or realities can be suspended and questioned at will. It is a free “subject” who superimposes his will (whatever it may be) upon “objects,” and never should this order be reversed. Only objects are stagnant; subjects exist in the world of perpetuated possibility.

This worship of possibility makes sense of why the Romantic prized the faculty of imagination as the perfection of subjectivity, since imagination is how the self dissociates from any given experience. It allows the person to escape the bondage of his own narrow perspective and take on life from a new vantage point. The pursuit of art is particularly apt at allowing one to view experiences from multiple angles and to excite desire. Because the essence of subjectivity is the generation of possibility, the Romantic presumes the imagination is unquenchable–indeed, its very purpose is to yearn. Individuals desire to harmonize and express the totality of their life, but such a feat forever stands elusive. It is this very image of yearning, this ceaseless pursuit and wandering, which defines the human experience. The artisan cultivates a life of signposts always pointing to realities beyond reach. As the German poet Novalis once penned, “Philosophy is actually homesickness.”[5]

In practice, the Romantic ironist “fears nothing more than that some impression or other might overwhelm it, because not until one is free in this way does one live poetically, and as is well known, irony’s great requirement was to live poetically.”[6] Observing one’s life from the outside allows one to transform even negative life experiences–guilt, suffering, unrequited love–into a piece of art. After all, it is the spectator who can encounter even the darkest of Greek tragedies as artifacts of beauty. Every experience contains a deep capacity for beauty which the artist takes upon themselves to manipulate and reveal. In this way, the Romantics wanted the power to compose their own lives poetically. They take on the roles of playwright and theatergoer simultaneously.

Facilitating this task is the assumed power to create ex nihilo: “For only when one is able to create oneself, to become whatever one wills–even, if one so wills, to become nothing at all–does one possess the poetic license necessary to make one’s life, like one’s poetic productions, a work of art.”[7] Therefore the Romantic, according to Kierkegaard, “has no validity, and since it is not his concern to form himself in such a way that he fits into his environment, then the environment must be formed to fit him.”[8]

Kierkegaard observes how such arbitrary freedom easily incapacitates itself: “We cannot blame the ironists for finding it so difficult to become something, because when one has such a prodigious multitude of possibilities it is not so easy to choose.”[9] Under Romanticism’s spell, the old paradox of Buridan’s donkey immobilized by equally competing necessities inverts itself; the Romantic is rendered inert by possibilities and directions indistinguishable from one another. Even when the Romantic selects out of these indifferent alternatives, he will still “continually collide with the actuality to which he belongs. Therefore, it becomes important for him to suspend what is constitutive in actuality, that which orders and supports it: that is, morality and ethics.”[10]

The celebration of indifference does not merely result in boundary-pushing; it instead severs the acting self from all actualities. Even the weight of continuity from one’s own actions. Enacted choices from one possibility must not constrain future possibilities. In the end, “Irony now functioned as that for which nothing was established…if it posited something, it knew it had the authority to annul it, knew it at the very same moment it posited it.”[11] Rejecting continuity to such an extent undermines the ability to comprehend the self as belonging to a unified narrative, a process of transformation. Meaningful actions are made coherent and intelligible insofar as they occur in a particular sequence for some end.[12] The Romantic instead wishes to see all actions completely atomized from any context with all past choices perpetually open to interpretation. Life is lived as a series of disconnected moments. The Romantic exists but can never become. Like Meursault in Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, the self exists immanently in the present.

Living earnestly, in contrast, implies at least some superseding reality which continues to exist for the individual irrespective of changing moods. “An earnest Christian,” Kierkegaard explains, “is well aware that there are moments when he is more profoundly and vitally gripped by the Christian life than he usually is, but he does not therefore become a pagan when the mood passes.”[13] The ironist “lives in this totally hypothetical and subjective way, his life loses all continuity. His life is nothing but moods…the most contrasting moods succeed one another. At times he is a god, at times a grain of sand.”[14] The lack of coherence means the answer to the question of personhood (“who am I?”) derives from nothing except temperamental whims.

Even cascading and context-less moods must resolve themselves somehow in the span of an individual human life. Continuity must exist for the Romantic, but only in a negative sense. Kierkegaard labels this negative continuity “boredom” which he describes as “eternity devoid of content, this salvation devoid of joy, this superficial profundity, this hungry glut.”[15] Boredom of this kind is not a superficial feeling, but a blank canvas of meaninglessness. Boredom stands as a perpetual empty backdrop, like a clear sky, with nothing more than passing clouds of transient moods to occupy the space. The only thing remaining to this Romantic is sensate and pure immediacy, later termed by Kierkegaard as the “Aesthetic” life. It is no surprise that the Aesthete often prides himself as being a connoisseur of novelty and thrill. Even lifestyles and values become as interchangeable as an actor’s costume. For the cultivation of externals is precisely how a person distinguishes himself as an individual.

Although Kierkegaard concedes in his analysis of Socrates that irony of some form is indeed necessary for subjectivity, he understands that the Romantic interpretation risks paralyzing the self with apathy. True freedom cannot strictly be the capacity for fantasy. It must also incorporate the power to act. Actions necessarily do constrain future possibilities as actions severed from meaningful consequences and continuity are not true acts. Kierkegaard understands the Romantic ideal as representing a subject subverting all actualities, including its own acting self. “[Romantic irony] thinks it is living poetically,” Kierkegaard writes, “but I hope to show that the poetic is the very thing it misses.”[16] With these words, Kierkegaard suggests that the truly human life must go beyond mere irony. The process of subjectivity involves the whole life; that is true. “But this longing must not hollow out actuality; on the contrary, life’s content must become a genuine and meaningful element in the higher actuality whose fullness the soul craves.”[17]

In closing, it is worth quoting Kierkegaard in full as the following succinctly presents the prophetic tone of The Concept of Irony:

In order for the acting individual to be able to accomplish his task by fulfilling actuality, he must feel himself integrated in a larger context, must feel the earnestness of responsibility, must feel and respect every reasonable consequence. Irony is free from this. It knows it has the power to start all over again if it so pleases; anything that happened before is not binding, and just as irony in infinite freedom enjoys its critical gratifications in the theoretical realm, so it enjoys in the realm of practice of similar divine freedom that knows no bounds, no chains, but play with abandon and unrestraint, gambols like a leviathan in the sea. Irony is indeed free, free from the sorrows of actuality, but also free from its joys, free from its blessing, for inasmuch as it has nothing higher than itself, it can receive no blessing, since it is always the lesser that is blessed by the greater.[18]

It is clear something greater is needed. The individual cannot live the aesthetic life through his own power. The hint is that an artist higher than oneself must poetically create the individual. What if, Kierkegaard would muse, each individual could be poetically composed by God himself?

This longing to “become oneself’ before God animated Kierkegaard’s sophisticated approach to Aestheticism. In this way, he would follow along with the Romantics in their pursuit of true subjectivity. He would also adopt their methods by emulating Socrates’ example by endeavoring to nullify systems of thought from the inside. Kierkegaard’s famed approach of using pseudonyms, for example, allowed him to incarnate various abstract philosophies as persons. He wished to embody what these approaches to life look like as living people rather than as objective ideas studied from a distance. But unlike Socrates, Kierkegaard resisted remaining in a state of perpetual suspension. Indeed, his entire literary work as a whole seeks instead to orient toward a way of life which brings an individual beyond irony–to freedom, to truth, and to God. Only then can the Romantic yearnings be realized and the Aesthetic life lived to its fullest.

Daniel Goodman is pursuing graduate work in Data Science at the University of Louisville. He has B.S. in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Boyce College and currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

  1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates: Together with Notes of Schelling’s Berlin Lectures, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Kierkegaard’s Writings 2 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1989). 262.

  2. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 196.

  3. Under this schema, it must be acknowledged that a figure such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau may not serve as an accurate typological figure of Romanticism, despite his frequent portrayal as such. This iteration of Romanticism mainly flourished within the bounds of Germany. With regards to Rousseau’s enduring legacy as a Romantic figure, Isaiah Berlin bluntly affirms that “his role has been exaggerated.” See Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001), 52.

  4. Sylvia Walsh, “Living Poetically: Kierkegaard and German Romanticism,” History of European Ideas 20, no. 1–3 (1995): 190.

  5. Novalis, Novalis: Philosophical Writings, trans. Margaret Mahony Stoljar (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), 135.

  6. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 280.

  7. Walsh, Living Poetically, 190.

  8. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 283.

  9. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 282.

  10. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 283.

  11. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 275-276.

  12. See Chapter 15 of After Virtue: Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

  13. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 284.

  14. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 284.

  15. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 285.

  16. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 289.

  17. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 328.

  18. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, 279-280.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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