I'm working through "Alienation and Freedom" by Richard Schmitt right now.

In explaining alienation and it's precondition, he posits:

"The need for infusing one's life with meaning arises, as Kierkegaard understood, through the duality of human life. We are, after all, animals, governed by instinct and habit; but we also plan and think; our lives seem utterly swayed by accident and yet we try to make them into something that has an intelligible story...the ambiguity of the human condition."

(Emphasis mine.)

Resolving the ambiguity of the human condition sure feels good to me (as a human). But, I've never thought that my need to tell a coherent story about my life and it's contents came from that ambiguity.

I don't know enough about Kierkegaard to understand why he holds the position that our need for meaning necessarily follows from our dualistic nature. (This, despite a close reading of Schmitt so far, including the section on Kierkegaard in "A History of the Concept of Alienation".)

So: why does Kierkegaard think that dualism compels us to look for meaning?

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    The meaning of life is the central problem of Existentiaism : we are rational beings (that "plan and think") but we are subject to "irrational forces" : instincts, love, hate, misfortune,etc. This is the duality of human life. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Dec 13 '16 at 14:43
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    Agreed, Mauro. But why does the need for meaning stem from that dualism? Or, do you think I'm misunderstanding the author's intent, here? – Cameron Hurd Dec 13 '16 at 15:10
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    The problem seems very close to what Dewey describes in Experience and Nature. The world as such is arbitrary and ambiguous, therefore, as rational and planning beings, we have to establish security within it through giving it a meaningful shape. Meaning (within the world) is what makes the irrational and arbitrary world in accord with our rational and planning self. – Philip Klöcking Dec 13 '16 at 16:31
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    Okay – interesting! Dualism ⇒ Ambiguity ⇒ Insecurity. Security as a means of survival seems self-evident. Therefore, to confront and bring order to our dualistic nature is to survive. – Cameron Hurd Dec 13 '16 at 16:45
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    According to the quote, the need comes through the duality, not from the duality. Similarly, man coming to face his own existence and meaning through crisis does not mean that the existence and meaning come from crisis, only the realization does. – Conifold Dec 13 '16 at 20:43

I haven't read Richard Schmitt which makes me hesitant to answer the question as to what he means, but I can address the quote and what Kierkegaard means.

First, the idea is not singular to Kierkegaard. It, in fact, traces back to Aristotle. For Aristotle, we are animals -- but we are animals who join to being animals some form of rationality. Being animals for Aristotle means that we are alive and that we have sensation and motivations. Being rational means that we are capable of acts of reasoning and of decision making (you can find these ideas in BK I of Nicomachean Ethics but also in many other places in Aristotle's corpus).

An important second idea is teleology, which is to say that for Aristotle (and at least to Aquinas), what we are to do is determined by our nature. (This is also discussed in Nicomachean Ethics BK I and BK X).

Modernity throws a wrench in the teleological aspect in at least two ways. It would take a book to discuss how in detail, but (1) the natural world is no longer explained in teleological terms on a regular basis (think Hume's denial of causation) and (2) the role of consciousness is raised (think Descartes' project in the Meditations and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason).

With this out of the way, we can finally look at Kierkegaard and what's going on here. There's a passage in Anti-Climacus's Sickness unto Death that deals with the aspect in which we are blessed/cursed to have to make choices by pointing out that as humans we are different from the animals in that we have to make choices and thus can experience despair.

Separately, there's a discussion in Concluding Unscientific Postscript that identifies eternal happiness as the end of man, which echoes the Aristotelian picture in its Thomistic modification.

To make that a bit more practical, a giraffe goes around giraffing. It has a "teleology" from its genetics that just make it behave giraffingly. It spends its time going around eating from tall trees and having a blast (predation excepted). Maybe it picks to go for tree #1 or tree #2 based on which thing it likes.

Humans, in contrast, have so much capacity that we can question our own goals, motives, and capacities. In other words, we have to make choices about what we will do and about what we will think is worth doing.

The thing which forces this on us is that we are rational in addition to being animal. This means the pre-programming of what we can do is controlled by our ability to pick some of our ends. Obviously, this occurs within some limits, but the basic point is that I can, unlike a squirrel, decide that the purpose of my life is to collect sailor moon goods and devote myself to that whereas a squirrel just squirrels. Moreover, we are underdetermined in ends to a sufficient degree that we must pick.

The above paragraph is basic existentialism, but Kierkegaard's particular take is not that we are without ends altogether (as one might find in Camus) but that we face the challenge of rationally appropriating our ends whereas most animals don't (I can't vouch for whether the author in question understands Kierkegaard in the same way on this point as I do).

It's also worth noting that this idea of humans being different from animals in having reason is not singular to Kierkegaard. In fact, Hegel shares it and specifically links it to an account of necessary fall vis-a-vis the Garden of Eden (Encyclopedia Logic §24 Zusatz).

  • Nitpick: Aristotle's references to rational animal are problematic, discussion see here. – Philip Klöcking Jun 8 '17 at 12:04

I think a few people are close on this and I would like to toss in my $0.02.

Anxiety can often be thought of as a feeling of lack of control, it can usually be dealt with by making a decision on something small and working your way up to the bigger decisions.

Along the way, they are making progressively bigger decisions and thus their anxiety is lessened, then slowly replaced towards confidence.

Dichotomy is a function similar to Anxiety of being a more mature person and opens their mind to boot, someone who not only sees just one side but often two sides or two needs/issues that conflict with each other yet are often balancing each other.

Holding more than one state in your mind is also a sign of higher-order evolutionary process, its something you will need to devote some personal time in reflection and see how much of it you should add to your life.

First world problems, you've just found another one.


Maybe we want meaning, but Nature doesn't give us meaning - it is arbitrary, uncontrollable... That would be very unsettling and anxiety provoking, and would compel us to create a meaning for ourselves in this world that doesn't offer any. So, through the experience of being in a meaningless world, we experience the need for meaning.

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