A Ku Indeed!

A Truth to Die For

Posted in Existentialism by Chris on September 14, 2007

Although much as Kierkegaard can be difficult to understand, when you finally get clear on some of the basics in his philosophy what he has to say makes a great deal of sense. At the very least, he produces a lot of really great quotes. Here’s one that I think is central to the project of life as he sees it:

The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.

What Kierkegaard is trying to get at is this: he thinks that to live a human life you must live it with passion. By passion he doesn’t mean what people tend to misinterpret it to mean — that we have emotions flying around on maximum, or that we are running around trying to cram into our day as much as is humanly possible, or bungee jumping or partying wildly or whatever. Rather, he means that we have to make a “leap of faith” into a type of life (it doesn’t have to be a religious life — he means that any commitment to any kind of life requires a leap of this kind); we have to make a commitment to live as a particular kind of person. A passionate person is on a mission (like in Blues Brothers). And, he thinks, if we do not have a kind of commitment like this that we are willing to live and die for, we aren’t really living, and we surely have no passion.

Kierkegaard would no doubt be critical of life plans that are centered around doing “what one is supposed to do.” So a person goes to college because they are supposed to, they get a job because that’s what you are expected to do, you get married because it seems like a fun thing, you have kids…etc., and then you die one day. Maybe you had fun all that time. Maybe you enjoyed yourself. But to Kierkegaard, if those things did not come together to form the basis of a lifetime commitment that you would die for, you basically never lived. You had no passion, you were dead all along.

Passionate people organize their lives around their commitments. They don’t “waste time” and they don’t treat their lives carelessly.One thing that Kierkegaard does say: if you find that you are the kind of person who gets “bored” a lot, then it’s very likely that you lack passion. Passionate people are never bored. They are quite the opposite — they are always worried that there’s not enough time to complete the projects that are associated with the lives they are busy building. Bored people have no passionate life projects, so the passage of time is painful to them if they aren’t being entertained.

How many of us fail in this regard? How many truly passionate people are there out there? Is he right that this is what living should be?


8 Responses

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  1. Swad said, on September 14, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    I think that the vast majority of people I know fit K’s idea of a “passionless person.” Expectations, obligations, social pressures – these are the motivations for most of the world.

    Could society function if everyone pursued those things about which they were passionate? We would have a lot of musicians and artists, but who would fix the vacuums? 🙂

  2. Chris said, on September 14, 2007 at 4:26 pm


    Actually, Kierkegaard thinks it’s possible to be a vacuum cleaner repairman AND live passionately. You would simply commit to this as a way of life and organize your life around it in an intentional way, and it would have to be a path of life for which you are willing to live, and willing to die. He actually doesn’t have in mind particular avocations (anything works), it’s rather HOW you go about it that matters. Many people choose avocations and life paths simply because they fall into them, or because that what “one does”. But there are more passionate ways of choosing that he would want to see.

    I see many students picking life-directions non-passionately (regardless of what it is, I think this even happens in art and in philosophy, or english). They choose it because that what people expect, or it’s what “one does” being from the family/environment they are from, or because it makes money and that’s what one ought to do, etc.

    The list goes on.

  3. Adam said, on September 14, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    I find myself wishing K had said, “The thing is to find a purpose which is meaningful for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.” because I definitely agree with him, but I’m past ready for the word truth to be used as a stand-in for a generic positive concept. After all, you need truth to mean what it really should mean if you want to have any effectiveness while following your idea.

  4. Chris said, on September 14, 2007 at 5:55 pm


    No, he actually has a theory of subjective truth, as he calls it, and that’s what he’s referring to. Common uses in language:
    “so and so is _in the truth_” or God saying “I am the truth”…that sort of thing.

    He’s actually not using it flippantly, he thinks there’s an objective and subjective sense in which “truth” can be used. You want the senses to just be “objective” — he’s questioning why that needs to be so.

  5. Adam said, on September 14, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    I don’t think I expressed myself correctly, then. I don’t have a problem with all of the diverse definitions that “truth” has. I think they are all valuable ideas, including K’s, presumably. I just wish that all the diverse valuable things that we can use the word “truth” to mean didn’t all get associated with the same five letters. I think it leads to more confusion than it needs to. I’d be more than happy to take the objective sense and call it “troth” or something like that, as long as it led to less confusion.

    It’s not a battle with language I’m going to win, but people may want to live and die for, say, the idea of young earth creationism. As long as “truth” gets used for both the objective and subjective senses, we do have to admit there is a sense in which young earth creationism is the truth for some people.

    Maybe a better paraphrase would be something like, “The thing is to find a way of life that I can be passionate about, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

  6. Chris said, on September 14, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    No, it wouldn’t be satisfactory for him. First, the word “truth” has power — it implies correctness, or a kind of alignment with some standard. So he’s not about to cede the ability to wield that word to only one way of talking about “existence”.

    Basically, I think what he’s saying is that there are two different kinds of alignment. There’s the more scientific notion of it (correspondence theory) and then there’s the kind of alignment that corresponds to the way _I am_ as an “existential” existent. Part of what it means to “be” what I am is to “be” in the kind of state that follows from a certain kind of commitment, namely the kind for which I would live or die. When I am in that state, I am _in_ the truth. Could be Flat Earthism, could be the commitment to kill your son (Abraham). What matters is the “how” not the “what”.

    Objective truth is the flipside; no one cares much about the “how” it’s just the “what”.

    In an odd, but somehow analogous way, it’s like an “agent-act” distinction in ethics, but with respect to truth.

  7. Adam said, on September 14, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    I think this is just the part where existentialism sails over my head. I understand being passionately committed and embodying my commitments and even the idea that what it is like to be me is inseparable from what I (choose?) as my commitments, but I don’t think I understand what “the way I am as a existential existent” is. What does it mean for one to be “in” the truth of Flat Earthism? At very least it seems to imply that one can be “in” the “truth” of something false-in-the-objective-sense.

  8. Chris said, on September 14, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    It does imply that (though it clearly doesn’t require it). The truth of the “how” isn’t dependent upon the truth of the “what”. As a matter of fact, according to Kierkegaard, the most intense “subjective truth” that one can “be” is to be in the midst of the movement of faith, granted that the object of one’s commitment in such a case is a literal contradiction (Jesus, say, who is the embodiment of contradictory elements), so that the greatest truth is the embracing of the absurd.

    What an “existential existent” is, is a whole lot more complicated, obviously. I’ll have to save that one for a separate post!

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