Absolute Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and the Question of Onto-Theo-Egology

By Kangas, David | Philosophy Today, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Absolute Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and the Question of Onto-Theo-Egology


Kangas, David, Philosophy Today


Although Kierkegaard's authorship mainly elaborates the structures of existential subjectivity, his work does presuppose certain metaphysical commitments. To be exact, Kierkegaard appropriates, from German idealism, the concept of the absolute, or "being-in-and-for-itself." The absolute is the object of a first philosophy or metaphysics. Further, Kierkegaard follows German idealism in positing the absolute as pure or infinite subjectivity. As infinite subjectivity, the absolute signifies God. On the surface, then, it looks as though Kierkegaard's existentialism presupposes what Heidegger called the "ontotheological constitution of metaphysics."1

In the following I want to explore the extent to which this is the case. Looking at Kierkegaard's relation to German idealism-Fichte and Hegel in particular-I will argue that Kierkegaard's appropriation of the metaphysics of absolute subjectivity operates within a more general movement of reversal. For Kierkegaard absolute subjectivity is no longer ground but, anarchically, that which interrupts grounding.

Thus the question I would like to raise is whether in thinking the absolute as infinite subjectivity Kierkegaard reinscribes his thinking, at a very fundamental point, within the horizon of the modern metaphysics of subjectivity, i.e., the speculative metaphysics, that he otherwise contests. The impetus behind this question is a critique of Kierkegaard by Heidegger that suggests Kierkegaard's metaphysical naivete. In a typical passage Heidegger writes:

By way of Hegelian metaphysics, Kierkegaard remains everywhere philosophically entangled, on the one hand in a dogmatic Aristoteleanism that is completely on par with medieval scholasticism, and on the other in the subjectivity of German idealism. No discerning mind would deny the stimuli produced by Kierkegaard's thought that prompted us to give renewed attention to the "existential." But about the decisive question-the essential nature of Being-Kierkegaard has nothing whatever to say.2

Kierkegaard's thought, in other words, is insufficiently radical. However much he would like to contest idealism, he remains trapped within its basic horizon: the modern metaphysics of subjectivity. Attempting to surmount Hegel without engaging the "decisive question" of metaphysics, i.e., the question of the meaning of being, Kierkegaard all the more profoundly falls under Hegel's sway.3

With Heidegger in mind, I will consider some late texts from Kierkegaard's Papirer, where he formulates in an explicit way a concept of infinite or absolute subjectivity. These entries are extremely important for gauging Kierkegaard's relation to speculative metaphysics, and in particular the modern metaphysics of subjectivity. They show without question that Kierkegaard reflected upon the metaphysical presuppositions of his thought and they articulate, as I will argue, a standpoint incommensurable with the modern metaphysics of subjectivity.

However, it will be useful to make more precise the meaning of the "modern metaphysics of subjectivity." According to Heidegger, idealist metaphysics, whose exemplary instance is Hegel, is summarized by the term "onto-theo-ego-logy."4 This complex term links together ontotheology, which Heidegger identifies with metaphysics in its broadest sense, with egology, which refers to the specifically modern element.

An egological interpretation of being grasps subjectivity, the "I" as such, as the ground and principle of what is. Within the ego, taken as ground, thought and being are identical. Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre is the effort to carry through this interpretation, which brackets transcendence, in a rigorous way. Hegel's thought grafts the egological back into the ontotheological. Ontotheology signifies for Heidegger a certain unclarified conflation, foundational for metaphysics as such, between the Being of beings (ontos) and a highest being (theos). The result of linking ontotheology and egology is a certain interpretation of the meaning of being according to which the latter presents itself as what can be known (logos) in a threefold way: in general (ontology), in terms of its paradigmatic or "highest" instance (theology), and as that which is posited by the subject (egology). …

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