At the beginning of the first chapter of The Sickness Unto Death we find the paragraph

Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self. Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self.

(The bracketed bits were bracketed in the text.)

So far I think I've figured out what he means by some of the last stuff. When he's talking about how man is a synthesis, he means between spirit and body. Therefore man is a relation. But "a relation which relates itself to its own self" is a little harder to grasp. And I'm not sure why man is not yet a self when regarded in this way. It's dialectical, almost definitely, but it doesn't sound like the parts of Hegel I've read on consciousness and the will---the intro to Philosophy of Right.

Anyway, I stopped reading there and decided to ask for help. What does this mean?

  • I have never studied Kierkegaard except briefly as an undergraduate. I think this is an interesting quote. I think that while there is a synthesis of finite and infinite, this synthesis does not feel satisfactory to man. Man has a sneaking suspicion that it might all be finite, and that death (necessity) will win, and freedom will go down with it.
    – Gordon
    Aug 17, 2017 at 1:18
  • It seems Kierkegaard wants to achieve a unity. So his problem is to achieve this unity, probably in infinity. With unity man would a self. So he has the hard problem of getting rid of man's nagging fear of a final, really final, death. My attempt.
    – Gordon
    Aug 17, 2017 at 2:25
  • I don't have an answer. Just an observation, that Carl Jung claimed that the Self is individuation, the perfect relation of the ego to the unconscious. May 17, 2020 at 17:13

4 Answers 4


It can be difficult and misleading to try to comprehend Kierkegaard line by line. Like Lao Tzu, he's a philosopher of paradox, and you gain an apprehension of the grand sweep of his ideas by considering his series of oppositions in context, not by focusing in on the individual details.

With that said, the paradox or opposition here is that man is and is not a self. The first part is just a transitive syllogism, man is spirit, spirit is self, therefore man is self --very logical and Hegelian.

But from here it all goes haywire. Self, as you notice, is defined recursively, it is a single thing in relationship with itself; a closed loop; a stable identity. Man, on the other hand, is a synthesis between incommensurable opposites, the infinite and the finite. So man is a relationship, but not the relationship that defines self. Therefore man cannot be self, yet we already demonstrated that man is self. At this point, as with a Zen koan, you are simply supposed to meditate a while on the paradox.


The last sentence gives a clue as to why "man is not yet a self."
Since a synthesis is a relation between two (my emphasis) factors, and since "the self is a relation which relates itself to its own self," is only one factor, - man is not yet a self! However, I think this is the wrong conclusion. It should be - man is not yet a synthesis!

From the first sentence, one obtains what Kierkeggard thinks the self is, "Spirit is the self."


Coincidentally, I asked this same question earlier this week [3/2019]. I believe the answer to this question, which Kierkegaard responds to later in the text, comes when he defines 'angst' as [roughly] 'the fear which arises at refusing to become yourself'. He attributed this gnawing fear that accompanies many people through the day and night as an intuitional yet faint yet haunting recognition that each of us is not just an evolutionary 'animal' fumbling our way through a micro-evolutionary stage of development, but that there is 'something' inside of us which comprises some type of 'spirit' or, at least, a spiritual component. This 'fear' which haunts us comes as we have an inkling of understanding that in order to fulfill a 'new' destiny we must surrender to the spiritual part of our nature in order to become this 'synthesis' between animal and spirit. I asked this question because in my area of specialization, Spinoza, there exists another type of 'tension'. Spinoza's involves becoming intuitively capable of understanding 'the path to salvation' and 'mens aquascientia' or total acquiescence of the 'mind couched in the intellectual love of god'. See Ethics Part Five- On Human Freedom- Propositions 35-36-37, (Elwes trans. Dover Publications, Inc. New York 1955)

@Canyon from CS. All the Best


The self is a relation (a dialectic synthesis of possibility and necessity, temporal and eternal etc.) that has the essential possibility of relating to itself. One can, so to speak, look at himself in the mirror and be able to recognise (or fail to) his god-given being, structure in the ways that K. develop in the following pages. Animals do not have this fundamental possibility (they have/are a relation between soul and body that cannot relate itself to itself) and pagans cannot recognise that the self is not funded in itself, but posed by Another. The Christian instead can find (salvation) or lose (perdition) himself by understanding or misunderstanding himself.

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