Freedom and Indifference: Kierkegaard's Critique of Liberum Arbitrium

**Rough Draft: do not cite**
Freedom and Indifference: Kierkegaard’s Critique of Liberum Arbitrium
Shannon Nason
Loyola Marymount University
1. Introduction
There are two general views about the world that many philosophically inclined theists
have on occasion sought to avoid. The first is that either the universe is absolutely necessary or it
is a fully determined series of efficient causes.1 The second view is that the universe or some
parts of it is a random place, without determinacy. Two reasons why theists have traditionally
denied the former view is that, first, it conflicts with the common intuition that human beings are
morally responsible, and thus free, agents. There obviously is an apparent conflict between our
common conception of free will and necessity.2 Secondly, a universe that is governed with ironclad necessity appears to abrogate the possibility that human beings are meaningfully involved in
realizing their potential for the good. Surely, a necessary and fully determined universe may
contain some good end for its creatures, but this fact does not entail that creatures are
meaningfully involved in realizing it.3 A universe that lacks order, on the other hand, appears to
many theists to conflict with the view that God is good and is intimately involved in some way or
other in the world. If the universe and events therein are random, without order, without some
reason, without creaturely ends, then there would appear to be no good for which creatures strive
either freely or by nature.
Neither view by definition includes the other, since an efficient causal series may be contingent, and thus not
absolutely necessary, while an absolutely necessary system is, by definition, not contingent.
I take it that a common intuition about free will is that it must in some substantive sense be self-directed,
“attributable to our selves rather than to something external to us.” See Laura Waddell Ekstrom, Free Will: A
Philosophical Study (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 2000) 3. As I will argue, however, whether freedom and
necessity are in conflict depends a lot on what kind of necessity and what kind of freedom is at issue.
For example, Spinoza and, on some accounts, Hegel.
Søren Kierkegaard concerned himself with criticizing philosophical theories that the
universe is a necessary system. Indeed, a core feature of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy
involves a trenchant critique of Hegelian doctrines that, either explicitly or implicitly, espouse
absolute necessitarianism, which is the general view that for anything that exists, its existence
could not have been otherwise than it is. While a controversial interpretation of Hegel and
Hegelian philosophy more generally, Kierkegaard argues that Hegelian necessitarianism leaves
no room for human freedom, particularly the freedom that is required for meaningfully initiating
ethical and religious projects. This is because a world that is absolutely necessary is neither itself
contingent nor does it contain things and events that are contingent. Following Leibniz4 and
others, Kierkegaard argues that one necessary condition for creaturely freedom is contingency.
However, Kierkegaard is careful to distinguish senses of necessity that do not derogate
Kierkegaard’s position on whether any part of the universe is random is more difficult to
ascertain. The so-called “father of existentialism,” Kierkegaard is often interpreted to argue that
meaningful choices about ethical and religious projects are radically free, resulting in arbitrary
and random volitions of the will, unconstrained by reasons, a process of deliberation, or divine
involvement.5 Indeed, this reading of Kierkegaard has its reasons, especially given the central
place the notion of the “qualitative leap” plays in Kierkegaard’s thought. For example, in The
Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Vigilius Haufniensis, presses on the point that
free choice is a “leap” towards some goal or project and not an event that is driven by or the
Kierkegaard spent a good part of 1842-43 engaged in a substantive study of Leibniz. He was particularly interested
in Leibniz’s Theodicy. According to Kierkegaard, “the two cardinal thoughts of Leibniz’s Theodicy” are “[t]he
difference between necessity and la raison du mellieur…[and]…the fact that a completely indifferent freedom is
nonsense” (SKS 19, 392, Not13:23 / KJN 3, 390).
This is a common charge against Kierkegaard, most notably pushed by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (Notre
Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 40-41.
result of logical or causal antecedents. Free choices are “qualitatively different” from logical or
causal determinants. This suggests, among some Kierkegaard readers, that the logical
connections we make in processes of practical deliberation have no impact, causal or otherwise,
on our choices, and that a causal chain of events in nature determine the will. Instead, we just
choose good or we just choose evil, without any reason at all, arbitrarily and without any
objective criterion of assessment (at least before the choice) as to whether our choices will be of
any value. This reading of Kierkegaard is misguided on a number of levels, for it ascribes to
Kierkegaard a view that he, throughout his authorship, rejects, namely, that freedom is
indifferent. He rejects the view that in order to be free either our intellect or our will must be
indifferent to either good or evil, and thus be equally capable of choosing both without any prior
reason or inclination to choose one or the other. Already early on in Kierkegaard’s authorship,
his pseudonym, Judge William of Either/Or II (1843), states that before the ethical individual
“chooses, the personality is already interested in the choice.”6 And around the same time,
Kierkegaard, in an approving manner, wrote in one of his notebooks that Leibniz “splendidly”
critiques freedom of indifference, pointing out that it violates the principle of sufficient reason.7
Indeed, if Kierkegaard agrees with Leibniz’s critique of indifference, because it violates the
principle of sufficient reason, then Kierkegaard’s universe is clearly not random but fully
Kierkegaard, in his pseudonymously written Concluding Unscientific Postscript, calls the
indifference of the intellect “objective reflection.”8 He argues that objective reflection “turns
existence into an indifferent, vanishing something” and that the object of objective reflection,
EOII, 155.
We will return to this point later in the paper.
SKS 7, 177 / CUP1, 193.
“objective truth (Sandhed),” is best sought in abstraction from human existence.9 The kind of
truths objective reflection seeks are the necessary truths of mathematics and the contingent truths
of history and science, both of which are indifferent to what Kierkegaard calls the truth of
subjectivity, the truth that must be known or encountered in the human quest for freedom. It is
precisely this truth that is not a matter of indifference to the individual, but is, according to
Kierkegaard, the individual’s deepest interest. Simply put, Kierkegaard’s argument is that all
human beings, implicitly or not, desire to be free, which, in Kierkegaard’s sense is synonymous
with individual coherence and unity over time.10 Thus, all individuals, in their actions, seek
personal unity, and to varying degrees fail or succeed to achieve unity by either failing or
succeeding to know the truth about what can bring about this unity.
However, interested knowledge of truth is not on its own sufficient for human freedom.
Passionately willing the good is a further requirement. Thus, Kierkegaard objects that an
indifferent will is not resourceful enough for achieving personal unity over time. Kierkegaard
calls the indifference of the will liberum arbitrium. While intellectual indifference gives no care
to the truth about what will set the individual free, an indifferent will is unconstrained by reasons
or passion for or against the good required for realizing personal unity. Kierkegaard denies that
free human agents are capable of liberum arbitrium in the sense of “indifferent” or “arbitrary”
choice. Instead, freedom requires determinacy or constraint, both in the sense of having a history
of motivating reasons for choosing the good at the exclusion of evil and in the sense of the
determinacy divine involvement plays in human freedom. My aim in this paper is to bring into
contact Kierkegaard’s moral psychology with his broader metaphysics of free will in order to
motivate a more complete picture of his denial of the freedom of indifference.
Cf. C. Stephen Evans, Passionate Reason (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992) 27.
2. Character, Rational Life-Unity, Passion
Kierkegaard begins his work, The Present Age, a trenchant critique of modern European
culture and life, with a curious statement: “The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting
age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially
relaxing in indolence.”11 There are three features to this diagnosis that are worth pointing out, as
they are fundamentally tied to Kierkegaard’s critique of indifference: first, he claims, the age is
that of understanding or reflection; the second is that this understanding or reflection lacks
passion (lidenskabsløse); third, because his reflective age is devoid of passion, the actions of its
members lack a kind of consistency; one moment acting with enthusiasm, the next relaxing in
repose.12 The diagnosis of the age is that it is disintegrated, without a unity of character aimed at
and mutually reinforced by norms. It is this disintegration that stands as a good test case for
understanding his theory of ethical and religious character and the essential role passion plays in
its development. My discussion of Kierkegaard’s view of character and passion will open the
door to see why it is important for him to reject freedom of indifference.
Let’s turn, then, to Kierkegaard’s moral psychology, which aims at describing the
conditions that must be met in order for a person to achieve genuine character. By character,
Kierkegaard does not mean, as Norman Lellegard has observed, simply that all persons have a
way of being what they are or happen to be. Rather, character, for Kierkegaard, denotes a
SKS 8, 66 / TEK, 252.
Kierkegaard is not quantifying over all members of the present age; rather, he’s quantifying over all members of
the present age who are hemmed in by and sold to its values. As Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Anti-Climacus, puts it,
“what is called the secular mentality consists simply of such men, who, so to speak, mortgage themselves to the
world. They use their capacities, amass money, carry on secular enterprises, calculate shrewdly, etc., perhaps make a
name in history, but themselves they are not” (SKS 11, 150-151 / SUD, 35).
person’s “rational life view.”13 Kierkegaard’s understanding of character is that it is “full of
conscious teleology, thus, full of thought in the service of wholeness or unity.”14 For the sake of
ease, a definition of a rational life view is in order:
For any person, y, who has a “rational life view,” y is a conscious unity of thoughts,
passions, and actions engaged in a particular set of behaviors that are aimed at some
significant telos, around which and for the sake of which, y orders his or her existence.
This is why character, for Kierkegaard, does not denote simply “the way someone is,” since the
way someone is could exhibit emotions, capacities, and intentions that are not aimed at a telos
around which and for the sake of which an individual orders his or her existence.
Kierkegaard’s employment of passion is meant to connote a thoughtful and enduring
commitment to (1) striving to be a self that is unified over time, namely, having a life unity over
and beyond the transitional states of time and change and (2) a good around which and for the
sake of which having a life unity is possible. It is both the commitment to be a self, to identify
oneself with one’s passion and actions, and the commitment to a good of some sort, which makes
one free in Kierkegaard’s sense.
This unity of character or life unity is the distinguishing mark of the ethical and religious
stages of existence in contrast to the aesthetic stage. Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Judge William,
distinguishes between aesthetic and ethical existence in this way:
But what does it mean to live aesthetically, and what does it mean to live ethically? What
is the aesthetic in a person, and what is the ethical? To that I would respond: the aesthetic
in a person is that by which he spontaneously and immediately is what he is; the ethical is
that by which he becomes what he becomes.15
Some highly reflective aesthetic individuals, to varying degrees, live their lives by not taking
Norman Lillegard, “Thinking with Kierkegaard and MacIntyre about Virtue, the Aesthetic, and Narrative,” in
Kierkegaard After MacIntyre, ed. John Davenport and Anthony Rudd (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), 215 and 230
(fn. 5).
Lillegard, 215.
EOII, 178.
responsibility for the roles, relationships, and social endeavors in which they live. They do not
take responsibility because they consciously refuse to meaningfully identify themselves with
them in order, as the pseudonymous A of Either/Or I, states, to “make possible the realization of
a complete freedom” by ensuring “against sticking fast in some relationship of life.”16 As A
One must always take care not to enter into any relationships in which there is a
possibility of many members. For this reason friendship is dangerous, to say nothing of
marriage….When you are one of several, then you have lost your freedom; you cannot
send for your traveling boots whenever you wish, you cannot move aimlessly in the
The aesthete desires freedom from constraint and is indifferent to the normatively binding goals
the ethical life places on an individual, namely to become a unified person over time, and thus a
thoughtful bearer of duties towards others and one’s social roles and endeavors.
Judge William urges that “the person who has chosen and found himself ethically
has…himself as a task…a concrete self which stands in living interaction with these determinate
surroundings, these conditions of life, this order of things. The self which is the aim is not just a
personal self, but a social, a civic, self.”18 This choice to become a concrete self, and thus a
bearer of duties and obligations, requires a passionate concern for oneself as an agent in the
world of relationships, interactions, and roles. Further, it requires long lasting commitment to the
“absolute importance of duty.”19 Interpreting one’s life as both tied to determinate surroundings
of tradition, social environment, etc. and as taking responsibility for oneself as in agent in these
surroundings requires a conscious commitment to a long lasting good—namely, absolute duty.
The ethical individual is concerned to have a life that has value and makes sense over the
EOI, 291.
EOI, 293.
EOII, 552-3.
EOII, 558.
fluctuations of time and change, unlike the aesthete who’s existence is unstructured, fragmented,
and without self-conscious unity. It is for this reason that the ethical individual is wholly
interested in his decision to live according to duty, since he it is this that is the telos around
which and for the sake of which a unity of life is achieved.
Kierkegaard’s lesson is that without a unifying telos of life, one that would offer an
objective standard of assessing and measuring the value of one’s choices, one’s existence
amounts to a series of arbitrary moments of choice. Judge William admonishes A’s aimlessness:
The aesthetic choice is altogether immediate, and thus no choice, or it loses itself in a
great multiplicity…If a man aesthetically ponders a host of life tasks, then he, as is the
case with you…does not readily have one Either/Or, but a great multiplicity, because the
self-determining aspect of the choice has not been ethically stressed and because, if one
does not choose absolutely, one chooses only for the moment and for that reason can
choose something else the next moment…The person who wants to decide his life task
ethically does not…have such a wide range.
The aesthetic individual is confined to a series of momentary choices without a guiding telos,
and thus his choices are unconstrained and random. Thus, the aesthete is really an inventor of
values, much like Sartre’s radically free individual. As Sartre says, “life is nothing until it is
lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you
III. The Metaphysical Argument: Historical Freedom and Necessity
There’s another side to Kierkegaard’s critique of indifference. While we’ve sketched the very
broad contours of his moral psychology as precluding freedom of indifference, it is important to
consider his metaphysical arguments against it. There are two issues to address to motivate this
metaphysical approach. The first involves Leibniz’s influence on Kierkegaard’s understanding of
historical freedom and divine activity and the second Kierkegaard’s theory of change.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. By Phillip Mairet (London: Methuen, 1948) 53-4.
First, however, let us consider two important passages. One from Either/Or II and an
other from Kierkegaard’s Journals. In Either/Or II, Judge William writes to the aesthete that
For freedom the contradiction [between good and evil] does exist, because it excludes it. I
am by no means confusing liberum arbitrium with true, positive freedom, because even
this has evil forever outside itself, even though it is only as a weak possibility. It does not
become perfect by more and more assimilating evil but by more and more excluding it.”21
In an 1851 journal entry, Kierkegaard praises St. Augustine’s distinction between libertas (true
freedom) and liberum arbitrium “as very true and very much a part of experience—namely, that
a person has the most lively sense of freedom when with completely decisive determination he
impresses upon his action the inner necessity which excludes the thought of another
These passages suggest that by taking on a commitment to some good end, the real
possibility of doing otherwise than the good becomes weaker and weaker. Notice that true
freedom is positioned against liberum arbitrium in such a way that evil is no longer equal to
good as a possibility as they are for the indifferent will.
Freedom of indifference is neither constrained in its action (even if I choose good over
evil, evil still remains an equally live, and not just logical, possibility for me) nor is it determined
to act by any cause external to the will. It appears that at least these two conditions (freedom
from constraint and nonnecessitation) render the freedom of indifference more suitably free than
what Kierkegaard calls true freedom. However, Kierkegaard suggests that an indifferent will is
not only not free, but a fantasy. In other places he’s keen to say that freedom of indifference is
In the years 1842 through 1843, Kierkegaard devoted himself to an intense study of
SKS 3, 169 / EO II, pp. 173-174.
SKS 23, 288, Not. 23:172 / JP 2, 1269
Leibniz, evidence of which we have from his notebooks.23 There he writes that “A completely
indifferent will is a non-thing, a chimera; Leibniz shows this splendidly in several places.”24 And
in The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis claims that “To
maintain that freedom begins as liberum arbitrium (which is found nowhere, cf. Leibniz) that can
choose good just as well as evil inevitably makes every explanation impossible.”25
Leibniz’s arguments against indifferent freedom are supported by logical, metaphysical
and theological doctrines concerning the relationship between contingency and necessity, human
freedom, and divine activity. It’s reasonable that if Kierkegaard believes Leibniz’s arguments
against liberum arbitrium go through, then Kierkegaard himself maintained some Leibnizian
One way Leibniz criticizes freedom of indifference is by arguing, as Kierkegaard notes,26
that it violates the principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz says of the freedom of indifference that,
One must admit it, if indifference signifies as much as “contingency;” for I have already
said…that freedom must exclude an absolute and metaphysical or logical necessity. But,
as I have declared more than once, this indifference, this contingency…does not prevent
one from having stronger inclinations toward the course one chooses; nor does it by any
means require that one be absolutely and equally indifferent towards the two opposing
courses…I admit indifference only in the one sense, implying the same as contingency,
or non-necessity. But…I do not admit an indifference of equipoise, and I do not think that
one ever chooses when one is absolutely indifferent. Such a choice would be, as it were,
mere chance, without determining reason, whether apparent or hidden.27
Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason renders chance events in the universe impossible; further,
because a purely indifferent choice would be fortuitous, freedom of indifference is likewise
impossible. Leibniz’s critique of the freedom of indifference is in many ways motivated by what
he believed was an illegitimate conception of contingency among, especially, the Molinists in
See, especially, SKS 19, 390-396, Not. 13:23-27 / KJN 3, 388-393.
SKS 19, 393, Not. 13:23 / KJN 3, 391.
SKS 4, 414 / CA, 112.
SKS 19, 391, Not. 13:23 / KJN 3, 389.
Leibniz, Theodicy, trans. by E. M. Huggard (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988) III, §§ 302-303.
their account of free will and grace.28 In order to avoid necessitarianism, the Molinists posited an
indifferent will free from the constraints of divine causation, arguing that if God is determining
of human actions, then these actions are necessary and not contingent. Leibniz’s problem with
such a move is that it fails to distinguish between different senses of necessity. The two senses of
necessity that are important to mention at this point are absolute necessity and hypothetical
necessity.29 In Discourse on Metaphysics, Leibniz says of these types of necessity that
The one whose contrary implies a contradiction is absolutely necessary; this deduction
occurs in the eternal truths, for example, the truths of geometry. The other is necessary
only ex hypothesi and, so to speak, accidentally, but it is contingent in itself, since its
contrary does not imply a contradiction. And this connection is based not purely on ideas
and God’s simple understanding, but on his free decrees and on the sequence of the
For Leibniz, what is absolutely necessary could not have been otherwise, except for pain of
contradiction, while what is hypothetically necessary could have been otherwise without
contradiction. It follows, then, that what is hypothetical necessary is contingent, yet certain. Even
though God foresees all contingent events, it does not follow that they are necessary; although,
because God freely decrees and foresees them, they are certain.
Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author of Philosophical Fragments,
stresses the historical and contingent character of human freedom in contrast to absolute
necessitarianism. The manner in which he motivates this contrast is through his concept of
motion, which he identifies with the Aristotelian notion of kinesis, or a “change of coming into
See, especially, Molina and Suarez…
The other sense of necessity for Leibniz is what he calls moral necessity and, I would argue, is not unlike what
Kierkegaard calls “inner necessity.” Leibniz writes of moral necessity that “this also does not derogate from liberty.
For when a wise being, and especially God, who has supreme wisdom, chooses what is best, he is not the less free
upon that account…And when any other chooses according to the most apparent and the most strongly inclining
good, he imitates therein the liberty of a truly wise being, in proportion to his disposition. Without this, the choice
would be a blind chance.” See The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, ed. by H. G. Alexander (Manchester, UK:
Manchester University Press, 1956) 56-57.
Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays, trans. by Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew (Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing Company, 1991) 13. Emphasis added.
existence.”31 Kierkegaard defines a change of coming into existence as a ‘transition
[Overgangen] from possibility to actuality.’32 Quite in line with the Aristotelian tradition, he
elaborates that ‘such a being that nevertheless is a non-being is possibility, and a being that is
indeed being is actual being or actuality.’33
Furthermore, he compares the change of coming into existence of and in the natural
world with the decisive coming into existence of future-aiming human projects. Kierkegaard
Everything that has come into existence is eo ipso historical…But the historical is the
past (for the present on the border with the future has not as yet become historical); how,
then can nature, although immediately present, be said to be historical?…Nature’s
imperfection is that it does not have a history in another sense, and its perfection is that it
nevertheless has an intimation of it (namely, that it has come into existence, which is in
the past; that it exists, which is in the present)…Yet coming into existence can contain
within itself a redoubling [Fordobling], that is, a possibility of a coming into existence
within its own coming into existence. Here, in the stricter sense, is the historical…The
coming into existence that is here shared with the coming into existence of nature is a
possibility, a possibility that for nature is its whole actuality.34
For Kierkegaard, human beings, like the natural world, have come into existence; we have
undergone a transition from possibility to actuality, from not existing to existing. By having
come into existence, we become historical. Our coming into existence points to our having a
past, a past that cannot be taken back. What distinguishes us from the natural world, however, is
that we are capable of deliberating about possible ways of existing; we are able to selfconsciously actualize possibilities that have historical and personal significance. Our initial
coming into existence contains additional possibilities for existing. So, unlike the natural world,
our initial coming into existence does not confine us to a natural necessity. Our future is not
Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, trans Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1985) 73. Henceforth PF.
PF, 74.
PF, 76.
determined by our physical constitution or the laws of nature that govern it. So, as Kierkegaard
presses upon us, unlike the natural world, our first coming into existence is not our only
possibility. The concept of redoubling emphasizes the unique freedom that human beings enjoy
in self-consciously and passionately realizing possibilities.
However, Climacus additionally argues, “All coming into existence occurs in freedom,
not by way of necessity…Every cause ends in a freely acting cause.”35 The central proposition
Climacus issues here is that all causes of change are free in some way. At first glance, it is
difficult to process the claim that all change is freely caused, considering that changes in nature
(the coming into existence of plants and animals, geological movements, dramatic shifts in
weather systems, etc.) are caught up in a network of efficient causes governed by laws of nature.
The central proposition Climacus urges here is that all causes of change are free in some
way. It’s not obviously clear what Climacus means. For this reason and to motivate a coherent
theory of free causality, Climacus will need to show that historical freedom is in some way
compatible with causal necessity, but incompatible with absolute or logical necessity. With
some reconstruction of his fragmentary discussion, I think we can see that Climacus correctly
makes this move. He writes,
Every cause ends in a freely acting cause. The intervening causes are misleading in that
the coming into existence appears to be necessary; the truth about them is that they, as
having themselves come into existence, definitively point to a freely acting cause. As
soon as coming into existence is definitively reflected upon, even an inference from
natural law is not evidence of the necessity of any coming into existence.36
SKS 4, 275 / PF, 75. Emphasis mine. Limited space won’t allow me to discuss the full significance of this passage.
By asserting that changes of coming into existence are not necessary and that they do not come about by way of a
ground, Climacus is claiming that all change is contingent and thus not absolutely necessary. I address this passage
in detail in my “Contingency, Necessity, and Causation in Kierkegaard’s Theory of Change,” British Journal for the
History of Philosophy, vol. 20, no. 1, 2012, pp. 141-62.
SKS 4, 275 / PF, 75. Emphasis mine.
Climacus here distinguishes between the first cause and the subsequent sequence of intermediate
causes that are the effect of that first cause. He states that these intervening causes are misleading
because they make it appear that the series of causes itself as well as each particular cause is
necessary. The intermediate causes (even if they result from a free act) will produce their
appropriate effects. This seems to be why, then, they might mislead some into thinking that their
having come into existence was determined. However, Climacus states that neither an inference
from laws of nature nor from the necessity of an efficient cause can establish that the coming
into existence of the world itself or of some particular part of it is necessary.37
To understand his position, it is crucial to see, as I remarked earlier, that Climacus is
contrasting two kinds of necessity: causal necessity and absolute necessity. Briefly, that which is
causally necessary is the determined consequence of a cause while the absolutely necessary is
that the denial of which is impossible. The point is that causal necessity and absolute necessity
are not correlative: what is causally necessary is not absolutely necessary and vice versa. This
Leibnizian distinction is central to Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegelian metaphysics, which
endorses absolute necessitarianism, namely, that all that exists and all that has come into
existence (that is, every effect of a cause) is absolutely necessary because all things flow from
the necessity of the divine nature.38 What is causally necessary (some effect of a cause) has come
into existence, is the result of a change, while the absolutely necessary simply exists. In
On the one hand, Climacus is correct to argue that just because particular causes in nature are necessary, it does
not follow that the entire assemblage of causes is necessary. However, on the other hand, it seems incorrect to say
that an inference from laws of nature cannot establish the conclusion that some particular event is determined to
For a detailed discussion of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegelian necessitarianism, see Shannon Nason,
“Contingency, Necessity, and Causation in Kierkegaard’s Theory of Change,” British Journal for the History of
Philosophy, 20, no. 1 (2012): 141-162.
Climacus’ words, “Nothing whatever exists [er til] because it is necessary, but the necessary
exists because it is necessary or because the necessary is.”39 Further,
Coming into existence is a change, but since the necessary is always related to itself and
is related to itself in the same way, it cannot be changed at all. All coming into existence
is a suffering [Liden], and the necessary cannot suffer the suffering of actuality—namely,
that the possible…turns out to be nothing the moment it becomes actual, for possibility is
annihilated by actuality.40
The contrasting features of causal necessity and logical necessity are made quite explicit in these
passages. The first stresses the contingency of changes that are causally necessary. Since some
effect of a cause is a change, is an event whereby something comes into existence, it is
contingent. Climacus seems to understand the contingency of efficient causes in two ways: (1)
causal events depend for their occurrences on prior causes. (2) Unlike the necessary, effects of
causes are able not to exist: they come into existence from a state of non-existence and they can
go out of existence. On the other hand, “the necessary” does not exist because it has come into
existence, but because it cannot have failed to exist. To invoke Climacus’ modal concepts of
possibility, actuality, and necessity, this means that the absolutely necessary does not undergo a
change from possibility to actuality, as if what is necessary in this sense (for example, that a
triangle is a three-sided figure) once was possibly so and now is actually so. On the contrary,
Climacus suggests that something is absolutely necessary if and only if it cannot possibly fail to
be actual, cannot not exist.41
If the series of efficient causes in the world is causally and, thus, not absolutely
necessary, then it is contingent, in the double sense of dependently relating to a prior cause or
causes and being able to not exist. It is this metaphysical commitment concerning the
SKS 4, 274 / PF, 75.
SKS 4, 274 / PF, 74.
Climacus does not provide a list, but it is probably safe to include rules of logic (like modus tollens), geometrical
and mathematical truths, and, perhaps, the existence of God as absolutely necessary.
contingency of efficient causes that renders more palatable Climacus’ additional claim that all
change points back to or in the direction of a free cause, and it is perfectly in line with Leibniz’s
claim that hypothetically necessary events occur on the condition of a divine free decree.
There are two general arguments, then, that Kierkegaard has against freedom of
indifference. The first is that true freedom requires an interest and commitment in a long lasting
good around which and for the sake of which the self can strive for unity over time. The second
is that, if we take Kierkegaard at his word, freedom of indifference violates the principle of
sufficient reason. However, as we saw, this does not automatically render choices determined,
since human choices, and especially momentous life choices, are hypothetically necessary and
not absolutely necessary.
Sigla to Kierkegaard’s Writings
The Concept of Anxiety, trans. by Reidar Thomte in collaboration with Albert B.
Anderson, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1980.
CUP1 Concluding Unscientific Postscript, vol. 1, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong,
Princeton: Princeton University Press 1982.
Either/Or, Part I, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton: Princeton
University Press 1987.
Either/Or, Part II, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton: Princeton
University Press 1987.
Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, vols. 1–6, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong
and Edna H. Hong, assisted by Gregor Malantschuk (vol. 7, Index and Composite
Collation), Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press 1967–78.
Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, vols. 1–11, ed. by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn,
Alastair Hannay, David Kangas, Bruce H. Kirmmse, George Pattison, Vanessa Rumble,
and K. Brian Söderquist, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press 2007ff.
Philosophical Fragments, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton:
Princeton University Press 1985.
Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, vols. 1-28, K1-K28, ed. by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Joakim
Garff, Jette Knudsen, Johnny Kondrup, Alastair McKinnon and Finn Hauberg Mortensen,
Copenhagen: Gads Forlag 1997ff.
The Sickness unto Death, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton:
Princeton University Press 1980.
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