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Self, Identity and Reflexive Cognition in Kierkegaard's Thought

Research Activity
Current Research Activity (September-December 2009)
The "Single Individual" and the Eschatological Boundaries of the Self

In both his pseudonymous and veronymous works, Kierkegaard often speaks of "the
Single Individual" as the entity that will be subjected to the "judgment of eternity" and
make an "accounting" of itself in its totality. This should not surprise us given
Kierkegaard's orthodox Lutheran commitments and primarily religious motivations. But
it is also often overlooked that, as Martin and Baressi (2003) have noted, the modern
question of personal identity emerges out of specifically soteriological concerns,
especially those raised by the doctrine of bodily resurrection. Indeed, Locke himself
sought an account of identity compatible with the justice handed out on "the great Day,
wherein the Secrets of all Hearts shall be laid open" (Locke, 1731: 294). But in
Kierkegaard's relational account of selfhood, what - if anything - delineates the
boundaries of the "single individual" that is subjected to this eschatological judgment?
What determines what the individual is to take ultimate responsibility for? Is there a
limit, or is the self - as in Levinas - a point of infinite responsibility? Or is it that
Kierkegaard's wariness of anything that looks like evasion of moral responsibility means
the question about the limits of our culpability cannot legitimately be asked?

Recent Research Activity (February 2008 - August 2009)


Minimal vs. Narrative Selves
It's generally accepted that Kierkegaard offers a post-Cartesian, non-substantialist

account of selfhood, but what sort of account? Several commentators have sought to
recruit Kierkegaard to the cause of "Narrative Identity," and there is much in Judge
William and Anti-Climacus' talk of teleologically-qualified selves acquiring "histories"

that might suggest the Kierkegaardian self is constituted by a specifically narrative form
of continuity. But as John Lippitt has recently argued (Lippitt, 2007), there are reasons
to be wary of this move, and narrative identity theory itself is not without problems: such

theories often seem to offer a construal of 'narrative' that is either too strong (confusing
life and art) or too weak to be particularly informative. Hence narrativists like Marya
Schechtman have tried to find a middle path through these extremes (Schechtman,
2007).
Moreover, there seems to be some form of personal unity prior to the self's narrative
organisation across time, even if such unity is only momentary. Indeed, it can be argued
that there has to be such a pre-existing basic unity of selfhood, for only such a minimallyunified self can organise itself into a state of narrative coherence across time. Hence
writers such as Dan Zahavi (2007), Shaun Gallagher (2000) and Antonio Damasio (1999)
have drawn, in somewhat different but cognate ways, a distinction between the
temporally-extended "narrative/autobiographical self" and the "core/minimal self" (prior
to any temporal extension and associated with the phenomenal sense of 'ipseity' or

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Self, Identity and Reflexive Cognition in Kierkegaard's Thought

'mineness'). The minimal self can exist without the narrative self, as demonstrated in
cases such as Korsakoff's Syndrome, but not vice versa.
Such a distinction has not, to date, been noted in Kierkegaard by those who read him as a
narrativist. However, in both the second volume of Either/Or and in The Sickness Unto
Death we find references to an eternal, "naked, abstract self", identified with freedom
and eternality, and distinguishable from both social roles/relations and, apparently, the
individual's psychological history and personality. Is this a counterpart to the

contemporary "minimal self"? If so, how does its presentation differ in these two works,
particularly with reference to this self's "eternality"? What exactly might this eternal
"core" self might be for Kierkegaard, if not a Cartesian ego or immaterial soul?

Recent Research Activity (February-December 2008)


The Persistence of Selves?
Traditional accounts of personal identity have, implicitly or explicitly, concerned

themselves primarily with questions of re-identification across time: how do we know


that the person stage encountered at t2 is the same self as the person-stage encountered
at t1? In other words, they seek to identify the persistence conditions if any of selves
across time. Neo-Lockean or Psychological Criterion accounts of personal identity have
particularly looked to relations of psychological continuity (memory, dispositions,
commitments, etc) to constitute these persistence conditions.
At first blush, the ontology of self articulated in The Sickness Unto Death looks like a form
of neo-Lockean identity model, albeit of a very peculiar type. For Anti-Climacus, the self
is not to be found among the physical, psychological and social continuities that

characterize human beings, but instead is constituted by a particular way in which the
human relates to itself. We could therefore say that the persistence conditions of AntiClimacan selves are that they continue to relate to themselves in this self-constituting
manner.
Yet if we take such a form of self-relation as constituting selfhood, we run into a series of
problems even more severe than those that have bedeviled neo-Lockean personal identity
theory. Most seriously, Anti-Climacus claims that selves can apparently be lost, yet if
selves can be lost and regained this opens up problems of re-identification and
transitivity: how can the same self cease to exist and then come back into existence? How
can a point in the life of a human be appropriated into a self at t1, not appropriated at
t2 and re-appropriated at t3?
Part of the answer might be to differentiate Kierkegaards account of selfhood from the
neo-Lockean one with respect to the question of time and persistence, focused through
Kierkegaards discussion of the eternal element in the self. Does Kierkegaard have a
traditional account of selves as things which persist across time? Or is Kierkegaards
understanding of selfhood as a first-personal, ethical/eschatological problem such that
the question of persistence cannot be raised? What would the implications of this be for a
Kierkegaardian response to the questions posed by neo-Lockeans?
Temporal Alienation and Loss of Presence
We take it as a brute fact of life that time only flows in one direction so much so, in
fact, that even philosophers have largely ignored the question of the rationality of our
asymmetric attitudes to the past and future (wed rather have a given quantity of good in
our future than in our past, for example). However, in Reasons and Persons (1984),
Derek Parfit argues that despite their ingrained nature these asymmetrical attitudes to
time are irrational and should be dispensed with. Parfit sketches a figure he calls
Timeless, a self whose attitudes to past and present are perfectly symmetrical. We
might find Timeless form of life alien, disquieting and hard to imagine, but Parfit insists
this is no impediment to recommending such a form of life.
Yet Timeless is not the first figure in philosophy to violate our usual asymmetrical
attitudes to time. In Either/Or, we are presented with a series of portraits of the aesthete
as a figure suffering from a form of temporal alienation: the aesthete apparently uses

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Self, Identity and Reflexive Cognition in Kierkegaard's Thought

recollection and imagination to range freely across the past and future, while somehow
hoping for the past and recollecting the future. The Kierkegaardian aesthete therefore
calls into question the normativity of temporal directionality, a normativity that Judge

William tries to supply with an ethical account of time. In that hes not alone either for
instance, the British Idealist J. Ellis McTaggart argued for certain asymmetries on
broadly ethical grounds. But McTaggart bases this normativity upon the very
asymmetrical attitudes to time that the figure of the Kierkegaardian aesthete calls into

question. Does Judge William do any better in trying to ground the normativity of a oneway temporal orientation? Or does he merely give us a new form of punctual time? To
make the directionality of time normative, do we need a specifically eschatological
conception of time, as offered in The Concept of Anxiety?
Whats Missing in Strawsons Episodic Selfhood?
In a series of important papers, Galen Strawson has argued that humans have a range of
temporal temperaments: some people are Episodics, who experience their self
understood as the mental thing thats having this experience right now as something
with no significant temporal extension, while others are Diachronics whose selfexperience includes a sense that the self (not merely the human being) they are now
existed in the past and will exist in the future.
In Kierkegaards writings we find extended, philosophically-structured descriptions of the
phenomenon of experiencing co-identity with representations of ones past and future
selves. This section of the project therefore seeks to use Kierkegaards description of
cognitive contemporaneity (samtidighed) to fill out the phenomenology of diachronic
self-experience, and explore the implications of Kierkegaards normatively-laden model
of self-experience for Strawsons account.
Self, Imagination and Time
Philosophers have long noted that we often identify less strongly (implicitly or
explicitly) with our near-future selves than our far-future selves (e.g. Parfit, 1984). This
blunt psychological fact throws up significant problems for our intuitions about personal
identity and responsibility. Some philosophers have attempted to determine under what
conditions we can and cannot so identify with our past and future selves, seeking some
affective quality in memory that can sustain our identification (such as Schechtmans
empathic access [Schechtman, 2003]). Others have denied that there is any sense of

identification with the self we encounter in our memories of the past and apprehensions
of the future; there is nothing internal to these experiences that makes the self figured in
them any more me than anyone else (Strawson, 1997; Giles, 1997).
Once again, Kierkegaards notion of contemporaneity seem to be a useful input into these
discussions. But does the mode of subjective thinking Kierkegaard variously calls
interested, contemporaneous and earnest really secure co-presence with the
temporally distant selves we remember/imagine? If so, how? Does it give us a reason to
care equally about our temporally close and distant selves? Can this model cope with
situations of radical changes in our character and concerns across time? What are the
limits of this capacity for Kierkegaard?
Concurrent Research Activity
Co-presence with death and the ontological status of the dead in Works of Love
and At a Graveside
The Borddandsen craze in the socio-religious context of Kierkegaards
Copenhagen

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