Kierkegaard, Schmitt, and the decision

Reading William Barrett’s discussion of Kierkegaard’s philosophy in his book Irrational Man, I was especially struck by the idea of the moment of ethical-religious decision. Having not read Kierkegaard himself for about three-four years, I had forgotten the extent to which his philosophy is concerned with this raw, factical encounter with the reality of choosing. As Barrett writes:

For Kierkegaard this decisive encounter with the Self lies in the Either/Or of choice. When he gave up Regina, thus forever giving up the solaces of ordinary life for which he longed, Kierkegaard was encountering his own existence as a reality more potent and drastic than any concept. And so any man who chooses or is forced to choose decisively–for a lifetime, and therefore for eternity since only one life is given us–experiences his own existence as something beyond the mirror of thought. He encounters the Self that he is, not in the detachment of thought, but in the involvement and pathos of choice” (p. 162-3).

Upon reading this passage and reflecting on Kierkegaard’s key place in the history of continental European thought, I was left to wonder if these ideas played any influence on the philosophical development of Carl Schmitt and his idea of sovereignty. While Schmitt was a devout Catholic, he was well aware of the Weimar Republic’s intellectual trends, and Kierkegaard’s work had already drawn significant attention in the country by the 1930s. 

But this circumstantial evidence aside, it is hard not to read into the parallel between Kierkegaard’s notion of the introspective individual who, by making a decisive choice, essentially becomes a sovereign self; and Schmitt’s understanding of the sovereign as precisely that agent who decides on the exception and has the ability to operate in a space of legal indeterminacy. Could it be that Kierkegaard’s experience of existence as something beyond the mirror of thought influenced Schmitt’s understanding of the sovereign as beyond the daily limitations of the political order?


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