Terminological Background

The traditional tripartite view of human nature, or the trichotomy of human persons, refers to the distinguishing of soul and spirit in humans (the body of course being the third part). In Christian theology, this is usually associated with the idea that in regeneration, the spirit is made new but not the soul. Thus "the tension between soul and spirit accounts for many of the struggles of the life of faith" (Richard Gamble, The Whole Counsel of God, Vol I, 247). The bipartite view of human nature (which Gamble argues for), or the dichotomy of human persons, is the view that there is no difference between soul and spirit. In Christian theology, this is often accompanied by interpreting πνευματικός in most of its occurrences in the New Testament as referring to the Holy Spirit of God rather than the spirit of man. I am more familiar with the bi- than the tri- view.


Reading The Sickness Unto Death, I am trying to get my mind around Kierkegaard's understanding of human nature. It seems fairly clear that he does not equate soul and spirit; for example, on the (in)famous first page he says:

The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself... In a relation between two things the relation is the third term in the form of a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation, and in the relation to that relation; this is what it is from the point of view of soul for soul and body to be in relation.

Here is another thick quote (page 55 in the Penguin Classics edition):

As soon as man ceases to be regarded under the aspect of spirit (and unless he is regarded in that way, neither can there be any question of despair), but merely as a synthesis of soul and body, then health becomes an immediate characteristic, and it is only in the soul's or the body's sickness that the dialectical arises.

Nevertheless, it also seems to me that this is significantly different than the traditional tripartite view of man; he does not seem to conceptualize spirit as one of three components of man, but the relation of the two components. How does Kierkegaard's position compare to standard bipartite and tripartite views of human nature?

  • With regards to the tripartite view, there is a real tome on this called "The Spiritual Man" written by a Chinese Christian known as "Watchman Nee".
    – user1539
    Commented Mar 7, 2012 at 2:38
  • You may find Heidegger's Being and Time helpful, in that his concept of Dasein seems to have many similarities to Kierkegaard's concept of spirit in this passage, and it's explained at much greater length. Commented Jun 2, 2014 at 16:51

3 Answers 3


Kierkegaard is making a metaphysical and epistemological investigation. If you reflect on what you, as a human being and especially your spirit or what ever you want to call it is, you realize that:

  1. You are wondering about yourself (you relate to yourself)
  2. This relationship that relates to itself, is itself set on this earth (the negative unity)
  3. Figuring what steers, directs and the true nature of what the negative unity is, is what his investigation is about.

According to the argument of Kierkegaard, this negative unity, of which we consist of, is torn in choosing between the timely and the eternal, and according to Kierkegaard a point of departure for all kinds of despair. Why, for example, do we choose to fill us up with junk, when we know better—who is making the call in our lives? How do you lead a meaningful life, how do you realize your real nature—in this regard Kierkegaard was a hippie before the word was invented, though he was a religious person.

You would have to have read and understood Hegel's phenomenology or Hegel's Science of Logic to understand where he is coming from. Another point of importance is that Kierkegaard lived before Freud, and no theory of the id, the ego and the superego existed.

  • +1 Interesting point about Freud. I haven't studied Freud much but I know that Kierkegaard mentions "psychology" frequently but obviously means it in a very different way than Freud! Kierkegaard seems to use it in a more classical Christian (e.g. Augustine) sense.
    – Kazark
    Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 19:41

"Only the Christian knows what is meant by the sickness unto death. As a Christian, he acquires a courage which the natural man does not know. This courage he acquires by learning to fear the still more dreadful." It is essential to know that he wrote out of his experience. As such, Kiekegard was able to see and agree with the new testament writers. To understand Kierkegard, you need to understand the Apostle Paul. Both would not say that a natural man is body soul and spirit because of the fall. the regenerate man, upon new birth, is awakened to the spiritual realm. The "organ" is the new heart which is neither body or soul but "spirit" This strengthens what Jesus said in the Gospels. "Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born qof water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." The natural birth occurs through the mothers water breaking and the spiriual birth is an awakening by the Holy SPirit and a new organ is formed. The "self" he is talking about is not the original adamic self, but the new "self" this is why Kierkegard says "most men live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit … There is so much talk about wasting a life, but only that person's life was wasted who went on living so deceived by life's joys or its sorrows that he never became decisively and eternally conscious as spirit, as self." I believe this "consciousness is the new self.

  • Natural Man = body and soul - New Man = body soul and spirit. This vew addresses issues of inability and has the highest form of God centered theology. Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 19:08

1.) The first quote from "The Sickness unto Death" deals with the two key terms soul and body of Kierkegaards anthropology. He considers a human person as being combined from soul and body. Here Kierkegaard follows a traditional anthropology: „Kierkegaard's position compare[s] to standard bipartite […] views of human nature“.

2.) The second quote considers despair as a mental disorder, a sickness of the spirit. Kierkegaard‘s thesis: Nearly everybody is affected by this mental disorder, without knowing it. Apparently, spirit is considered a different category than soul and body. Kierkegaard later says: „for the devil is sheer spirit, and therefore absolute consciousness and transparency;“ (Section: B. DESPAIR VIEWED UNDER THE ASPECT OF CONSCIOUSNESS).

Hence Kierkegaard considers spirit not a third component of a man, but a mental state, or - in a narrow sense - a psychical state. Components and states are different ontological categories; they live on different ontological levels. Hence the second pasage from your quote does not present a tripartite model of man.

3.) I do not know how Kierkegaard matches anthropology with his theological concept of sin in later parts of his book.

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