August 2021

John T Kuehn's picture

This may have been posted arleady, if so, I apologize in advance.


Soren Kierkegaard and Existential Realities as tied to Time (and Tense): Implications for Military History

By John T. Kuehn

This hand grenade treads a new path through the environment of flying explosions that are sometimes witnessed at this locale.

So here goes.

First, Kierkegaard 101.   The Danish Christian existentialist philosopher forged a new trail in the evolution of philosophy in the 19th century.  His greatest contribution was the idea of levels of being.

That is, there are levels of being, which are tied to levels of sentience (or lack of it), but for his purposes he confined himself to those levels of being, and thus self-awareness, of the human condition as he found it, mostly within himself. How he reacted to the world around him.  Kierkegaard decided that humans have three levels of awareness: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual.   The first level is that which reacts to pain, pleasure, and the senses.   It is the level of the child who finds the flame pretty until she touches it and it burns her and makes her cry, who sees the soft fur of the kitten and pets and joins the kitten in aesthetic mutual rapture. Who is hungry, and then sated.  It is the level with the least amount of self-awareness beyond “feels good, feels bad” and so on to include the five senses.   Good or bad is based on one’s own sensory feedback loops.

The next level is that of the ethical, that level in which ideas of right and wrong, just and unjust come to the fore.   It often comes down systems of ethics that are cultural or societal, rule-based if you will, but rules with meaning.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is an ethical rule.  It provides for what philosophers like Immanuel Kant called the sum bonum, or greatest good, but it also makes sense because it services the first level of existence.  If others are doing good to you, like one’s parents at a birthday party, then one often also feels good and thus it is a quid pro quo arrangement. I am doing good because at some point it will “pay forward.”  Without this level workable societies and collectives are nearly impossible.

The final level that Kierkegaard identified is neither sensory based nor rule-based.  It is based most profoundly on the future, on delayed gratification, and on that always tricky word hope.  It is the spiritual level and it addresses the very meaning of life.  Kierkegaard was in some sense attacking the rationalists and skeptics like Hume and Voltaire and others in his advocacy of this position.  He believed in God, in a being greater than him.  How could he not?  If material and mass the size of a human brain (and Kierkegaard had an inordinately large head for his day), could have sentience, then why not the universe, and if it could have relationships, well….and thus his Christianity.  But his spiritual level of existence did not simply encompass that faith view but all faith views that see this life as temporal and the afterlife as eternal.  Thus the spiritual level of being focused foremost on how one connects one’s behavior in the present to one’s existence in an eternal future.

Okay,  K-101 done.   In sum, aesthetic being is focused on the present, ethical being on present, past behavior, and the immediate (temporal) future, and the spiritual mostly on the eternal future.

Why should military historians care?  That is the hand grenade. My entry is this:   the motivations of human beings, both as individuals and as part of larger groups, is profoundly shaped by these levels of being.  For a guy like Hobbes, it is the aesthetic level that rules, and thus a Leviathan like government is needed to get us to a rules-based/rules enforcing system. It is not just, but it is MORE just than anarchy and chaos of all against all.  The worst form of government except all the others as many often joke about democracy.

Similarly, for faith-based ideologies, especially monotheistic ones, motivation is less about the here and now but about the “there and what is to come forever and forever”—and just for oneself, but for one’s parents, siblings, children, tribe, nation, society, and the totality of mankind.  That kind of motivation can result in some very bitter contests indeed.

     John T Kuehn



The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Naval War College, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.